Our understanding of childhood is always in flux. The subservient child of the Middle Ages became the malleable child of the 18th century – the open page upon which the print of education left its indelible mark. Closer to our own time, the child under protection (1870–1940) changed to the vulnerable child (1945–1975), exposed to the world as mothers entered the workforce in increasing numbers, and lastly to the participatory child (1975–2010) with a louder and louder voice.
Where are we now? We have children who dream of becoming YouTube superstars, observed by many and observing many from the safety of the screen in their bedroom. A common complaint from parents is their children are far from participatory and so the participatory child who negotiates within the family, school and society sounds somewhat outdated. Meanwhile, we seem to have returned to the rights of the child, this time clothed not in terms of protection from too much labour or capital punishment but of protection from males or child pornography or the power of the internet, where cyberbullying among adolescent peers and children has become rife.
How might we understand the child of today? A story that is not uncommon might point us in the right direction.
Earlier this year, I visited a high school one morning. Several principals were present and they were discussing how the big challenge on Monday mornings was to find time to sort out all the social media experiences of the children during the weekend. The main topic and challenge was cyberbullying. They expressed the common view that until these immediate weekend issues had been resolved the school week for the children could not begin.
It was as if the world of leisure had invaded the classroom in the manner of Fringe, Stranger Things or Counterpart (if you are up to date on your TV shows). The classroom was no longer a place of asylum from the social media world. Of course, such a separation of worlds is a project doomed to fail.
In the fragmented times in which we live, the school teacher offers counsel on a daily basis.
What can the teacher do in this situation? Is it their role to be social worker, psychologist, life-coach and mediator in addition to educator?
Ellen Key is a welcome voice in these contemporary debates. Key is a ghost from the early 1900s. She was known throughout the world as an activist and educator who defended the child’s need and right to be creative and so by association the adolescent’s need and right to be creative too.
In the spirit of Key and as educators, parents and concerned citizens, how can we seek to ensure creative opportunities without (over-)grasping towards protective strategies? Working towards an internet that is both a safe place and a source of creative experiences seems an obvious if difficult goal.
In the fragmented times in which we live, the school teacher offers counsel on a daily basis. They listen to the story of children not as sound bites but as ‘the continuation of a story which is just unfolding’ in the words of early 20th-century cultural thinker Walter Benjamin. In offering counsel, they delve into cyberbullying or motivation or deep knowledge, as opposed to conducting quick searches on the internet. They emphasise the importance of lived experiences.
Teachers know when their students should grow creative skills and when to offer counsel.
They are highly skilled professionals and destined to be the holders of these invaluable skills. The market value of such skills might be difficult to determine, but compensation should be commensurate with skills, and we as a society should not back away from this goal.