Sunday, 20 March 2011

Nature vs Nurture, Private Life vs Government Policy

I went to a very lovely Baptism a month or so ago and the experience has remained with me. What struck me was how well behaved, intelligent and involved the children were, particularly in doing the readings. I arrived a little early and watched them rehearsing with the clergy but this was simply a matter of getting used to the microphones. During the service they left their pews at the correct time without being herded, stood in front of a large congregation and read with an educated and social ease, then returned to their pews without running or being overwhelmed. These were kids between 6 and 10. I was amazed.

This church is the Sunday morning home of London Protestant socialite bankers and a few members of the Cabinet tag along. The clergy are amongst the kindest, most caring and robust people I’ve ever met and this attitude is brought to the way they run the church. They’re not dependant on or starstruck by their illustrious congregation, evidenced by this inclusion in their newsletter


Salve your miserable conscience by donating a considerable sum to your parish church.
After the baptism we decanted to the church school for refreshments and I watched as again the children behaved impeccably, not as if they’d been frightened into good behaviour, this is just the way they are. For me, the banal and smug adult conversation was painful but there was no denying that these parents were doing something very right with their children.

Being around them I felt a kind of blissful relaxation after my amazement subsided. I hadn’t realized that I feel stressed when watching the children from my own streets perform in schools or when I’m with them on our shared streets or buses or in the pub, but I do. What will they do next? Am I allowed to make eye contact? Will they allow me to ask them to turn their music down? Over the years I’ve learned to behave counter-intuitively, I relax, draw my energy right in and treat them as if they’re my equals. Actually, being decades younger than me they’re not my equals and I demand – and get - the respect of children that I have anything to do with personally, but the rage and lack of control demonstrated by too many young people is dangerous and so I avoid the issue entirely when I’m confronted by it.

Nature, Nurture. Would bloody horrible children be better able to cope with life if they’d been brought up in the same circumstances as their London banker counterparts? Would well-behaved and socially relaxed children become wild if they grew up in the same circumstances as their dangerous peers? I suspect there are many answers and so many variables that we can only make best guesses.

Like my daughter, I was brought up in poverty and in social housing yet both of us have avoided repeating the worst behaviours that we endured in overcrowded communities and ill-run schools. It’s possible to have a conversation with all of the children in my block of flats on our estate and they’re all doing well at school. In our block of 8 families there is one man: does that make a difference? Not in my experience. Poverty makes a difference, we can’t take our children on holiday – I didn’t go on holiday in the UK or abroad until I was 25 – and very ordinary experiences like recreational shopping or going to the cinema or taking a picnic on a bus to the park were closed to us. We grow bored and resentful. Some of us give up trying because poverty truly is largely inescapable: why strive and be endlessly disappointed?

So when she had the chance to leave Britain we grabbed it with both hands. She’s in Australia where overcrowding is unknown; poverty exists but the economy and a personal sense of status isn’t dependant on some people living in poverty forever; where what you can do and what you know is as useful as who you know; where a great many more children can breath deep and look at horizons. I wish all this for all our over-stimulated, frantic children (who will spit in your face if you call them children) who, as well as seldom experiencing meaningful boundaries, are unlikely to experience sustained good teaching, open spaces and being rewarded for their skills rather than for their dads income or who their mum socialises with. I wish that it were possible for all children to be comfortable reading complex texts out loud, in public, but I’m not holding my breath.

It's a cliche that Britain is one of the most class-ridden country on earth. We can legitimately point to other countries where maintaining an underclass is based on religion or simple elitist bullying, and all fair minded people dislike and want to alter the conditions that keep dalits living in dungheaps or Saudi people routinely abusing foreign workers. Foreign aid is is moral and proper, and at the same time we need to look at our own country and engage with complex facts and figures. These figures seem to be saying that a British underclass supports the economy (a pool of unemployed people keeps wages and inflation low and the stigma of being on benefits ensures that a great many people will take a low paid job when they'd be better off being on benefits, keeping prices down)  and that as a nation we're more than content to have a proportion of our children die or be brought up in unending poverty and die young. Are you content with that? Look deep.

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