No youngster should be thrown to the lions

20th February 2009 at 00:00
Does a TV series showing children struggling to fare without adults give us any real insight into how they think?

Met a former pupil in town recently. Like me, he was a challenge in his primary school years. Like me, he now wants to teach. Recalling some of his youthful escapades, we both agreed that such a background provides a knowledge of children that enriches our work. I was proud of him, and imagined one day employing this fellow poacher-turned-gamekeeper. His insight into childhood, warts and all, is a pretty good quality in a teacher.

Channel 4 dares to suggest that its new reality television series, Boys and Girls Alone, provides such insight. In the show, two teams of children have been sent to live in a separate villages with chaperones who, we are told, "will only step in if a child's safety is compromised". The impression the series fosters is of "a world without grown-ups" and the series poses the question: "Will they be able to survive on their own?"

Boys and Girls Alone, which concludes next week, has included disturbing incidents of bullying, children apparently struggling for food, isolation, crying and fear. One child, desperately wanting to leave, met his mother, who accused him of giving up and told him: "Your little attitude stinks, mate."

In one of the most alarming scenes, vaguely reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, the shaky camera followed two of the youngest children back to their house, which was vandalised with horrifying graffiti, and documented their clearly disturbed crying.

The whole experiment failed within a few days as parents had to go in, clean up, feed, clothe and cajole their children into staying.

In fact, the sensationalised impression that these children were "alone" is far from true.

I contacted Love Productions, the company behind the show, and it told me that, for example, when a bullied child cried for some time in one upsetting scene, she actually did so beside a chaperone, carefully kept out of shot. Once the camera was switched off, the producer, cameraman and anyone else in the room talked her through her painful experience.

In this light, the series should probably be called Boys and Girls Apparently Alone. Its makers seem to want to have their cake and eat it, giving the impression that the children are alone, until challenged that this is neglectful, at which point they reveal a hidden army of adults in the wings.

However, the bigger question is: why would anyone want to frame such a view of childhood?

Normal childhood is by its very nature interdependent - from the womb onwards.

Dominique Walker, head of factual entertainment at Channel 4, defended the series stating what it depicted was "normal playground behaviour". But in doing so, she betrayed the essential misunderstanding of childhood that underpins the series. Childhood isn't "alone". It isn't independent. It's a growth towards interdependence.

In his excellent book Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality, the sociologist Richard Sennett attacks what he calls "the shame of dependence".

Dependency is seen as something shameful, the result of incompleteness in oneself". But Sennett makes a case for "the dignity of dependence". Bizarre and sorry exceptions aside, childhood isn't about being alone. Even Mowgli had Baloo.

The Channel 4 series started only days after the Children's Society published its Good Childhood report, which suggested that "excessive individualism" was filling the void left by the decline of age-old values.

The society's report states: "It is more important than ever to put children in touch with their better selves, and to help them handle the selfish streak that is in each of us."

That streak was fully exploited in this television series, in a way that says more about odd, contemporary attitudes to the otherness of children than it does about childhood itself. This trend has been evident in the growing demonisation of youth in the media, which can be dated back to the time of the James Bulger murder in Bootle 1993 and the abolition in 1998 of "doli incapix" - the ancient presumption that a child under 14 does not have criminal responsibility for their actions. (Today, a child can be held legally accountable from the age of 10.)

In the case of Boys and Girls Alone, I am concerned about the bullying children seen making their mark in this series. Childhood is a time of understanding, not a time for being filmed then broadcast as an evening's entertainment. Even the miscreants deserve a bit more privacy than a Tuesday night television audience. The bullying they commit may be deplorable, but these are children who are still dependent, and should definitely not be left alone.

Ms Walker of Channel 4 claims "there was no psychological damage done to the children".

And there was me thinking our psyches were complex. I just hope she's right.

The Good Childhood report shed a contrasting light on the moral capacity of children, noting that "it only develops through fruitful human interaction". That is why we have this thing called education, where rather than deriving entertainment from "normal playground behaviour", we put adults out in that playground. Surely Ms Walker and her colleagues can see the difference between this and the gladiatorial circus the channel has constructed for these kids.

Of course, the makers have a nice narrative arc afoot. What's the betting we'll end the series with happy children declaring it the best thing they ever did, and so forth? Ms Walker has already told us that "they absolutely proved they could manage on their own".

Actually, they didn't. Channel 4 just made it look like they did. In reality, childhood may not make such good television, but it is a lot more fascinating.

Huw Thomas, Head of Emmaus Catholic and CofE Primary School, Sheffield.

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