Silly Blair and the science of strictness

20th June 1997 at 01:00
This week,the class went to the Science Museum. Toothache meant that my son -and I - couldn't go. Instead we spent the day miserably squeezing pus out of an infected gum. After a while the attractions of sickness palled and Jake and his brother invented a new computer game called "Silly Blair", which seemed to involve our PM killing all his enemies with a gleam of his teeth or a shake of his hair. "His smile," I was told, "is deadly."

As if that wasn't bad enough, return to school meant a lot of "You should have been there" and "poor Jake", all calculated to reduce our spirits further. The trip to the museum, of course, had been "brilliant". It was also "very noisy", "very big", "full of things" and "full of other children who are naughty". "Other schools didn't know how to use the Launch Pad," Tim informed me solemnly. "They just raced about."

But had our class been little angels? It seems they had. Their only complaint was that they had had insufficient time to try the experiments more than once. The teacher, with a touch of pardonable smugness, confirmed that they had been "very good".

Jake considered this and, after extracting the requisite promise to make our own visit, turned to me. "You see, Mum," he said seriously, "how lucky we are to have a strict teacher. Strict," he explained, "means not letting anyone spoil things."

My mind flashed back to other occasions. Times when it has not been possible to concentrate on speakers because parents would not or could not keep their children quiet. Times when children talking in the audience at a concert has meant that other children could not remember their performances. Times when something precious in the classroom has been destroyed by a member of one of the school's user groups and the excuse, well short of an apology, has been, "What can you expect, they're only children."

Of course, it is not hard to picture the menacing ranks of "strict" and life-denying adults, either. Parents who won't let their children paint at home lest they get poster colour on their shoes. Parents who send their children to a friend's house to play in their neatly pressed jeans and new shoes with instructions not to get them dirty playing football. Teachers who don't allow questions, talking, even putting up your hand. Yet, leaving aside the odd bout of all-out abuse, experience in primary schools today is unlikely to be coloured by strictness. Our teacher, regarded by the whole class as a martinet, is fathoms short of the sort of rigidity evidenced in Jane Eyre.

Having discarded strictness, then, are we all lovey-dovey about the wondrous world of self-expression of the child? I think not.

It was Dave's seventh birthday party recently. He went to Wacky Warehouse with 10 friends. "Then," said his mother, "we went into the restaurant, much to the discomfort of the other diners, who had to put up with us. Dave said to me, 'We're being a bit noisy, aren't we Mummy?' " Even children, it seems, find other children's noise trying. As for other adults, watch any poor mother trying to cope with a fractious toddler and a crying baby in the supermarket or bank, and see whether other people turn to her in concern or shudder away. Yet need it be like this? Dave's mother comes from Italy. As she says, "It's so different there. People seem to enjoy having children around."

We hear a lot about moral standards, educational standards and behaviour standards. All must pull their socks up. In general, increasing demands on very small children to conform to the Puritan work ethic suggest a return to strictness. Fair enough, if it is the kind of strictness we have in our class where the teacher is fair-minded and encouraging, too. Not so good if it means back to the dunce's cap, standing in the corner and "shame and blame".

When my sister was teaching, she lost her temper one day and told the children to pull their socks up. Rows of six-year-old faces turned to her in surprise, and dutiful hands went down six-year-old legs to tug at errant socks. You gotta laugh. Or is that too tricky a concept for our New Model Army, led by the personable man and perfect father known to my children as Silly Blair?

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