We think of ourselves as much more civilized than the Victorians, who sent their children to the mills or factories, or to work as chimney sweeps. Thankfully, child labour has been banned, at least in most of the Western world. (Unfortunately, it seems it has simply been outsourced, like our factories… and call centres.)
But the Victorian legacy of depriving children of a childhood lives on… in the Tiger Mothers around the world, and in my local patch of North London, the obsession with schools, results, and cramming knowledge into children at the earliest possible age — ballet/piano/chess/foreign languages/maths/gymnastics etc.
We don’t expect our children to earn a living anymore, but we do expect them to carry our banner into the world. And sometimes, it can be a very heavy banner indeed. Especially if it they need to compete with lots of other children who are equally charged with carrying their parent’s banner into the playground, sports field, ice rink or classroom.
I have heard many stories about the degree of expectation parents (and their proxies, teachers) load on kids — in terms of achievement at school (and outside it) and how, at pivotal moments in their English school career — at 7, the 11 plus, 13, GCSE’s and A levels — the pressure gets cranked up to 11. I’ve heard of parents berating their children publicly about their failure to be in the top three in their class, and the children’s shame and subsequent envy and jealousy of those who effortlessly succeed and who have displaced them in their parent’s eyes.
Self-confessed (and proud) Tiger Mothers have chosen to drive their kids to fulfil their own standards of success. But with other parents it isn’t so clear this is a conscious choice. I believe what mostly happens is that parents/teachers/schools get caught up in something, a kind of anxious feverish thoughtlessness.
Of course, we all know parents who see their children as an extension of themselves, not as separate beings. And we’re probably familiar with mothers who feel their children are their raison d’etre, their life project. They’ve given up their careers, so their children have to be amazing. Still other parents are terrified their children will be failures, or perhaps just not very successful.
But if we paid exclusive attention to such factors, we’d miss the wood for the trees. Because this anxious fever which affects parents/teachers/schools about grades and “achievement” is part of a larger cultural phenomenon.
All these things are important because of what “They” think. “They” know our schools are rubbish and our kids are falling behind. “They” are all desperate and will do anything to get their kids into the best schools. “They” all push their kids as if there’s no tomorrow. “They” will look down on us and pity us if our kids don’t achieve.
This “they,” which Heidegger talks about in his Being and Time, as “das Man,” is translated in a variety of ways, as “one,” “people,” but I think in English the most evocative version is the “They.”
When we’re not thinking for ourselves, we do what “one” does, what “they” do. We’re loathe to do things which we imagine will offend or upset “them.” The “They” functions as a kind of authority which regulates our lives, an authority which is located… everywhere and nowhere. It’s always easiest for us to do what “one” does. We don’t have to think.
It’s not only parents who are subject to this “They.” But it’s telling that even in relation to their own children it’s so powerful. Powerful enough to overcome their own instincts to protect and nourish their children. To override their own sense of what a childhood should be.
It’s always a struggle to free yourself from the ever-present (at least in our heads) “They.” For Heidegger, it was the battle to achieve authenticity.
This struggle is an essential part of therapy. Because as long as you’re caught up in what “They” think, what “one” should do, pleasing “them,” you simply don’t have room for your own thoughts, your own desires, your own goals.
I have seen this struggle in mothers in my practice, as the unhappiness of their children at school forces them to begin to question the whole system that creates this unhappiness, this driven-ness, competition, envy, jealousy, etc.
We need to be reminded that there is a time to every season, and our children need time to be children.
Michael Gove’s (the Education Minister) drive to test, test, test so that teachers and schools can be kept under the cosh of their latest test results, puts even more pressure on children. Isn’t this, however well-intentioned, a manifestation of the Victorian workhouse mentality?
I’ve just been reading David Copperfield, in which David’s ability to learn is reduced in accordance with the pressure that is put on him. If there are tests that matter to schools and teachers, children will be taught to pass them. The more frequent the tests, the more school time and effort is devoted to this.
Has Michael Gove come to think that teaching children to pass tests is real education?
For of course, this isn’t the case. Real education involves enabling people to free themselves from the “They,” from what “one” does and thinks. Real education enables people to think and feel for themselves. Sadly, it’s not something governments, or frequently parents, rate or prize.