By Cathy Nugent
Although I agree with the basic argument Jayne Edwards makes (Solidarity 219) — that using patience, sympathy and reasoning is the best way to help a child develop self-control, self-esteem and a “moral” viewpoint — I think she misses some points and overstates her case.
1. It is my experience (which is admittedly not vast) that primary school teachers want to be rational and sympathetic with children. That is not the picture Jayne paints. But the fact that teachers cannot always be responsive to individual children’s needs must be less to do with approaches to teaching and more to do with high class sizes — up to the 30 legal limit in many primary schools.
2. I think small children need something other than general guidance and “talking through” of problems.
Children’s ability to reason and to understand the consequences of their actions for good or bad develops very gradually. Of course “talking things through”, explaining and reasoning by adults plays a central part of that process. And to not have that approach, especially with older children, is wrong, politically wrong even.
But to expect children to be able to reason and to clearly empathise is quite another matter. Empathising is an incredibly difficult “skill”. False expectations in a child’s ability to do these things may cause confusion and upset.
Increasingly children are expected to abide by adult standards. In the criminal justice system there is a debate about lowering the “age of reason”; this, so that children can be prosecuted and locked up, for “criminal behaviour”. The argument that children should be expected to reason is a matter of convenience for the Right because embedded is the notion that children are “naturally” immoral.
The Left should not make the same mistake.
3. Rules are good. Or rather clear and rationally framed rules and the consistent implementation of rules are good. They can “stand in” for mature moral knowledge and help guide children towards greater understanding and help them feel secure.
Potentially schools can do this sort of thing well — precisely because it is a community — and children can contrast their own behaviour with that of other children.
Of course, sensible rules about keeping the school community safe and happy can be undermined by too many rules and petty rules. But again, it is not my experience that state primary schools do have lots of petty rules. Maybe it is different in faith schools.
4. The biggest issue I have with Jayne’s approach is the idea that schools can “fix” the problems children have at home. And surely it is a child’s relationship with their family and the experiences they have at home that leads to self-destructive and aggressive behaviour. That schools can “fix you up” is an idea that both the left and right fall into, though obviously from radically different points of view.
The biggest problem children have “at home” is poverty and there is no quick fix for that.
It seems incontrovertible to me that there is a link between poverty and so-called bad behaviour in children. Love does not put food on the table and a child who has to eat a bag of crisps for breakfast is a child who will feel insecure and unhappy.
Teachers who respond to children’s educational needs cannot substitute for a parent who is too stressed and disorganised by the harsh realities of life to respond to all of a child’s emotional needs. In fact a teacher who gives a child a lot of attention may make that parent feel more powerless and unhappy about the struggles they face.
There are incremental answers and the simplest and most effective one of these is smaller class sizes. That and to make schools more genuinely rooted in the “community” (e.g., as centres for lots of varied adult education).
More consistent application of liberal teaching methods (which most teachers do adhere to) would surely follow.