It was with a certain sense of curiosity, whilst out walking, that I came across a small group of boys (of about ten years of age) a short way ahead and in the middle of the path. One boy was on a bike and the others were fluidly gathered around. I couldn’t hear anything they were saying. My attention was drawn that way when another boy, who turned out to be part of their group, lurched into a sprint towards them just ahead of me: I wondered if, as a child myself, I could ever run with such sustained speed on such a hot day as this. Play doesn’t always care for the heat. Anyway, my attention was taken to the group farther up the path and I wondered, as I approached, if they would show any sort of fear or apprehension of me, this stranger, coming towards them.
Should I cross the road, keep an even set course, walk through the group, walk around them on the grass . . .? I decided that I’d just keep going. It was the way I was heading and the boys hadn’t shown any indication of awareness of me. My decision about whether to divert around or plough straight through was made for me when the boys swilled my way, down the hill, and parted around me before reforming behind me and going on their way. Such small incidences can prove significant in the thinking: this led me to realising that there was no adult with them (shock, horror!), and that the boys were also unperturbed by an adult they didn’t know walking right through their group (albeit they swarmed and reformed around me!)
It was refreshing to see this. After all, there’s certainly been a fair amount of fear pumped into children over the years about (though not restricted to) ‘stranger danger’. A little while later, on another hill as it transpired, I saw a parent (presumably) followed by a girl of about four years of age on her stabilised bike. What I actually saw first though — from around the corner as I came — were two other children, stationary on bikes and without an adult close by. My thoughts were refreshed from earlier on. It turned out that these children were attached to the parent of the stabiliser-bike girl, but they were just waiting around for her out of sight. Stabiliser girl didn’t wear a helmet and ‘mum’ didn’t seem worried about this. Nor did she fret about the wobbliness of the girl on the steep hill: also refreshing on all counts.
I mention this story because, like the thinking about the bike boys, it led me to consider the conditioning that goes on in society. I’ve written in these areas before, notably back in February in a piece titled Uncommon sense:
[E]verybody knows the received wisdom of what they’ve been told. They absorb that knowledge without question: children will fall and hurt themselves at height; children will fall and hurt themselves, at speed, without safety gear; children will hurt themselves on sharp and hot things.
This received wisdom is the conditioning: strangers are bad; if you go up high you’ll fall, and it’ll hurt; if you don’t wear a helmet, you’ll have to go to hospital, etc. The other day I was on a spontaneous trip to a local touch farm, as instructed by Gack who, in his three-year-old randomness, declared it to be a day to see animals. Sitting on a bench in a (pleasingly) unfenced designated play area, surrounded by chickens, watching the way of the world, gives ample time to reflect on the neuroses, which manifest in the space, of other adults/parents.
Poor little (let’s call him) Thomas, whose mother — I suspect — exhibited, in one afternoon, all the man-in-the-playground-fearing traits her boy could reasonably expect to need to last a lifetime: Gack made friends with Thomas and another boy some fifty yards away. I could hear him telling them my name and I felt a wave of ‘what does that mean?’ coming off them, before Gack insisted they come over to say hello. ‘Hello,’ I said and counted in my head, wondering how long it would be before . . . ‘Thomas, Thomas, come here . . .’ I shrugged at the boys and they scattered off and Gack and I sat on the bench and pondered our individual ponderings.
A group of pre-schoolers had been floating around the farm all day. They were dressed in bright yellow fluorescent see-you-a-mile-off jackets with equally bright pink and green strips for added visibility, dutifully holding hands like rows of battery-ducklings. When they were let loose in the playground (though ‘let loose’ only in closely adult-attended grouplets), I saw and heard one boy shouting ten yards across to (what I heard as) Mrs Snowfield (though that surname seems a dubious possibility to me). Three times he shouted it, but Mrs Snowfield was otherwise oblivious for whatever reason. She eventually turned around and saw her charge seven feet up on a platform. ‘How did you get up there?’ she asked him, with a little concern in her voice. (Well, Mrs Snowfield, I thought, because you weren’t watching — though I mean that not in terms of a dereliction of duty on her part, rather in terms of how he was able to get up there because her watching it might well have prevented it in the first place). ‘Be careful,’ she added. ‘You might fall.’ That he might, though now he knows it even more.
To be fair here, I realise I find myself saying things like this to Gack sometimes too. When I haven’t worked out yet what he might be able to achieve on something new to him, I sometimes have a moment of reminding him that slippery socks plus metal rungs might equal pain to some part of the body. Of course, in his three year old way, that subtle maybe-suggestion to put some shoes on isn’t picked up on: there’s no outward acknowledgement whatsoever from Gack, who seems to take my words as some affirmation that climbing higher is absolutely the most appropriate thing to do in these circumstances. Gack doesn’t fall and I question myself and the neurotic introjection I sometimes absorb when surrounded by parents of the cotton-wool variety.
Adults condition children into thinking in certain ways. We know this, and it was brought into focus for me this week when I also watched a documentary on human emotions. Michael Mosley presented The brain: a secret history. I was drawn to it, in passing, by hearing references to practitioners in neuroscience and psychology (such as Antonio Damasio, Harry Harlow, Albert Bandura), some of whom have been linked into playwork literature over the years. When Harlow’s name came up, my internal referencing system immediately led me to Suomi and Harlow (1971, I believe, though I cite this only from memory) and studies on monkeys’ relationships with one another. Harlow’s experiments led the documentary makers to present on the emotion of ‘love’ in human children. Bandura’s rather alarming experiments with an inflatable toy, and adult aggression towards it, showed how children would copy this aggression if seeing the adults engaged in it. What was most striking was the case of ‘Little Albert’ who, Mosley related, had fear induced in him by an experimenter named John Watson. Little Albert, a baby in the early 20s, was shown to learn fear of certain things if Watson banged loudly behind him when he engaged with those objects, or if Watson wore a frightening clown’s mask. Little Albert must have become damaged for his short life (he died at the age of six) — though nobody knows for sure.
Extremely questionable experiments aside, that we learn fear, and aggression, as children places a huge responsibility on the adults around those children. Emotions of fear and love and so forth contribute to (but don’t solely define) our human-ness, though how much of that is innate? How much of that do we ‘know’ from the start? That is, is any of it in our genes? Do we learn from the point of birth (or even in the nine months before), or are we absolutely blank of anything until such time as we can start to form our earliest neuroses? I wonder if the first face-to-face interaction of a mother (or whoever the baby sees first) with that baby, smile or aggression, makes any difference to them. Maybe a midwife can tell me this.
As a further aside, I was a little disturbed to see how Little Albert didn’t seem scared by fire on his first encounter with it. He was shown to reach for it when offered it by John Watson. Surely appreciation of fire is ‘in our genes’ and has been so for countless generations? That there was no appreciation of its potential affects, in Little Albert, might be cause for concern in some small corner of playwork-land (albeit this being just one demonstrable case).
If fear is pumped into us as children by fearful neurotic adults, we know what adults those children are likely to grow into. Again, this is not new thinking, but it’s worth pointing out here. Even small incidences of fear projection can alter the internal reckoning of those children — small incidences such as: unattendant adults suddenly realising the actuality of their charges being seven feet up on a platform; or of over-cautious pressure put on young children after seeing their curiosity at ‘worthwhile to investigate’ unknown adults.
I don’t know if the presumed parent of the stabiliser-bike girl with no helmet just hadn’t thought of the consequences of her falling off, or if she wasn’t concerned because she knew her child would be OK either way; I don’t know if the boys on the bikes had had ‘stranger danger’ alerts pumped into them from an early age (I suspect not, given their actions), or if they’d just chosen to ignore them, preferring to trust their own judgements. I don’t know the backgrounds to these particular children’s and adults’ stories, but I do know that the apparent lack of fear in both cases was refreshing to see.