Children want to talk; listen

One of my hopes for this blog is that it’ll become a sort of central gathering point for a lot of my ‘stuff’. In one sense, it’s just a really long-winded workaround because I can’t get my external hard drive to work properly, and need a backup. But also, I’m hopeful that in the midst of a vast shambles of a writing life so far, there might be one or two gems which people might like and respond to.

Going through some old files recently, I found this piece, which was published in the Times Educational Supplement in 2000. It is notable if only because I was contacted shortly afterwards by the editor of a gay anthology, who had read the piece, and thus wanted me to write my ‘coming out’ story. Clearly I was displaying sensitivity way beyond a hetrosexual man’s capabilities. Anyway – I hope you like it; I’m still proud of it 12 years on: the story of doing a teaching placement in a tough inner city school, and one little girl who made me cry.

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When a five-year-old child asked me to come home and be her dad recently, I came uncharacteristically close to tears. It turned out that just a week earlier, in a flurry of violence and screaming, her real dad had moved out of home, making her the nineteenth child in a class of thirty to go home to a single parent each night. A pretty little blonde girl with a penchant for skipping and laughing has now lost her sparkle. Now she sits quietly on her own, bursting into tears with alarming regularity and much to the confusion of her classmates as well as herself. She doesn’t quite comprehend what is going on, at least not in adult terms, yet she is desperately externalising her emotions to anyone who will listen.

Statistics such as nineteen broken homes in thirty used to sound shocking. Now we are so numbed to such a notion that a few years further up the school, where the child with two original married parents is something of a freak occurrence, we have totally eradicated the phrase ‘take this home to Mum and Dad’.

Over the course of a term-long teaching placement, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience both ends of the primary spectrum. And while Year One children like my little blonde friend are desperate to tell everyone how they are feeling, by the time they evolve into Year Fives such emotion has been pushed down deep inside. Why this loss of openness and innocence?

During the course of my degree, I’ve been taught of the value of drama, dance and visual art in expressing emotion and relieving stress. The creatively expressive child is therefore seen as one who is content and ‘normal’. This may sometimes be true, but we must not equate a loud and theatrical or artistic child with a happy and carefree one. In many cases, it’s quite the opposite, as an unhappy child throws itself into performance in order to grab attention. In those situations, such things are achieving no more than treating symptoms.

So perhaps, just as I felt when I sat next to my five-year-old would-be daughter, we just need to get back to basics with our communication. When it comes to dealing with grown-ups, the psychiatrists use talking as their tool for unravelling the problems of the past. If their patients had been able to talk a little more when they were younger, instead of bottling feelings up and never finding answers to their emotional questions, perhaps they’d have had less need for rehabilitation later on.

Children can become embittered long before they even understand what that word means, thus over the course of their primary life – and no longer – they can turn from joyful carefree playmates into angry resentful non-communicators.

There’s no simple solution. As the problems get worse, so do children’s early experiences: the very things that shape their adult being. But we can try to retain openness, always encouraging children to express themselves, never bottling their feelings up inside. And while drama, dance, art and the like may have value in assisting that, there’s no substitute for just sitting down and talking to children about themselves. Be careful though; the things they will tell you could drive you to tears.

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