Magical thinking

I’ve just been reading the obituary for children’s author Philippa Pearce, who died just before Christmas. She’s probably best known for ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’, and also wrote wonderful short stories – the kind I actually enjoyed reading to my children what seems like eons ago now.

I was very taken with her statement: “People think how carefree children are. Children have different cares, and cares particularly which they don’t want to articulate.” Although it sounds simple, it made me think quite a bit, and reminded me of why I got involved in children’s civil rights.

Adults naturally want children to be happy, but it’s easy for that to become a pressure on children to smile obligingly in order to make adults feel better, or to satisfy nostalgic fantasy about the mythical, golden days of childhood. Whenever I see nurseries called things like ‘Giggles’ and ‘Chuckles’, it strikes me that the cutesy names sound more like imperatives than places that accommodate real children’s emotions.

Going through the process of growing up isn’t one long round of sunshine (and, boy, for some children it’s anything but). Even for the most securely-loved child, the anger at being unjustly or rudely treated, the pain of losing a friend, fear of the dark and the frustration of being powerless are just as real and important as adult’s feelings. That the causes can seem trivial to someone with a bit more experience of life doesn’t make the emotions themselves any less valid or important.

I’m not sure that I agree that ‘children have different cares’ – it seems to me that they are very similar to the things that worry everyone – but it’s good to see the acknowledgment that children are people with all kinds of individual feelings and that it can be hard to communicate the darker ones to those who might not want to hear.

What has all that got to do with civil rights? Well, so long as children are trivialised, separated out from the rest of society and lumped together in bland generalisations (‘kids always do this’ ‘kids never want that’) then they are no longer individuals. They are dehumanised, just as women or black people once were – and sometimes still are. It allows others to discriminate and to allow their own fantasies to run riot. It deprives a sizeable chunk of our population from having any say in how their lives and society are shaped. It limits and damages all of us.

Marina Warner put it beautifully in her 1994 Reith Lecture, ‘Managing Monsters’:

“Childhood placed at a tangent to adulthood, perceived as special and magical, precious and dangerous at once, has turned into some volatile stuff – hydrogen, or mercury, which has to be contained. The separate condition of the child has never been so bounded by thinking, so established in law as it is today… How we treat children really tests who we are, fundamentally conveys who we hope to be”.

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