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Longing to be born in the USA

Susan Thomas finds geography is reasserting its place, while Cedric Cullingford reports on where children think they would like to live. Young children's concepts of other countries are generally indistinct. Given that they receive comparatively little geography at primary schools, that is not surprising. But there is one country - the United States - about which children have a distinct impression, as if it were an important part of their awareness of the world.

Children express very positive views of the US, as I discovered when I talked to 160 eight to 11-year-olds last year as part of my research into the formation of attitudes and stereotypes around the world. The children came from a mixture of backgrounds though the majority lived in southern England.

At first, their positive feelings might seem surprising. After all, many children's favourite films and series - thrillers such as Miami Vice, and other police dramas - would suggest that they would associate the country with car chases, violence, drugs and poverty. Not a bit of it. The US is seen as a place of riches: of things to do and buy. It contrasts with the rest of the world.

"Some countries are poor and some are rich, like in America you get very rich, some by oil and everything and they have a lot of money, and it's completely the opposite in Ethiopia." (Girl, 9) Possessions are of great significance in the minds of children: they are, after all, a reminder of the availability of toys. To them, therefore, the United States is a symbol of riches, even of extravagance.

"It's a good place and you get so many things. Skateboards are made there. Really good ones, like mountain-bikes and, you know, really good things. I've seen programmes." (Boy, 9) Riches expressed in possessions are not the only way in which the US is seen as superior. It is viewed as the source of the latest fashion, the place that is ahead in every way.

All are aware that most of the movies stem from Hollywood; but the assumption is then made that everything new is somehow American. "America gets the first things before us" (Boy, 8) is the usual reaction. Not only richer but smarter. There is no sense that there is any transatlantic cultural traffic in the other direction, any more than there is a sense of influence from other places, such as Europe.

But, despite the cops-and-robber films, Americans are also pictured as friendly, as well as rich. "They say they're really friendly and sometimes they come up to you and go 'Hi!' They just walk up to you and go 'Hi!'" (Boy, 8) So what could be more complete, in terms of imagery and association? The US is assumed to be rich, fashionable and friendly. It is a place that the children would like to visit. Indeed, there is a tendency to suggest that they would prefer to live there. There is better weather, for a start, and so much more to do as well as so much more to spend.

The question remains why children should have such a strongly positive attitude to the U S. It is as if the place were marketed. In one sense, it is. The influence of television is pervasive. American culture, from Dallas to Mickey Mouse, from the latest fads like Thunderbirds to the newest video, is constantly presented. The marketing of the US as a kind of perfect theme park seems to be successful.

"I'd like to go to the sunny place 'cos there's three different Disney Worlds in America. All the people there are, like, modern-fashioned and they're really cool." (Girl, 6) That is the kind of place the children would like to go to. How it contrasts with reality is another matter.

Cedric Cullingford is Professor of Education at the University of Huddersfield

Edited by Diane Hofkins

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