A little tenderness

Ever since I first read it, I have been carrying around with me a letter I cut out from The Guardian, sometime in 2009, I think. It was from a lady called Jane Lane, from Reading, and titled by the paper ‘Gently does it’:

“Mike Baker’s column discussed the Plowden Report and the more recent Rose and Cambridge Primary Reviews. It reminded me of the significant word ‘tenderly’ used in the Plowden Report, and the importance of such words when referring to children – ‘to care tenderly for individuals and yet retain sufficient detachment to assess what they are achieving and how they are developing.’ A bit more tenderness in all our lives would not go amiss.”

This seems ever more appropriate with each passing year since then.

It’s interesting that when we use the phrase ‘It’s just human nature…’, it always seems to be in a negative context: ‘It’s human nature to be aggressive/violent/competitive/selfish …’ Yet it’s as much in our nature (indeed, more so) to be kind, gentle, compassionate, loving, co-operative … And probably young children are better at it than we are. David Gribble explores this idea in his book ‘Children Don’t Start Wars’:

“To a small child, it is so ordinary and so easy to love people. We are all that way in the beginning. Unfortunately, we grow out of it, because we are taught otherwise.”

He points out that an ‘adult’ approach to solving problems is based on justice: fairness, rights, punishment
and rules. However, children typically look to solve problems from a caring approach: concern for the welfare of others, regardless of the rules ie with the focus not on fairness but happiness (not just their own, but others’) “The important thing is not to make rules and punish those who break them, but simply to ensure that, as far as possible, everyone is all right.” Children are not ashamed of being concerned about others, while as adults we tend to build walls around our own moral awareness eg when confronting, in our riches, poverty and disease. “Children are capable of pulling the walls down … Children are the guardians of the conscience of mankind.”

Of course children are capable of cruelty and unkindness (but don’t quote Lord of the Flies, it’s a fiction in every sense) but most often these are reactions to not being treated with love and gentleness themselves. But do we trust them and respect their autonomy and their right and ability to make decisions for themselves? Why are schools so preoccupied with creating and enforcing rules? Look at the extraordinary amount of time and effort secondary schools put into enforcing rules about uniform. Could it be that our rules are really about enforcing obedience and conformity? “Obedience is a concept invented by those in authority to make it easier to achieve their own ends, to relive them of the tasks of persuasion and justification” (David Gribble again)
So much of how we treat children seems to be based on a give-them-an-inch sort of distrust of their motivations and moral probity. As John Holt said, school is “the Army for kids” (and they are conscripts, not volunteers).

The treadmill of our delivery curriculum and high-stakes testing leaves precious little time for individual care and attention – a child may need some gentle listening, time to work through her/his anxieties or frustrations, maybe the chance to read together on furniture which allows the child to cuddle up next to a caring adult . What does curriculum say about caring about each other? Wouldn’t introducing a GCSE in tenderness be a wonderful thing?

The justified furore about the horrors of the abuse of children has resulted in defensiveness and anxiety about relationships with children in schools, especially physical contact. But we are legally in loco parentis; we know that infants NEED warm physical contact to thrive. We have a special duty to children deprived of warm relationships at home to demonstrate care and tenderness at school. There is a truly dreadful irony that the actions of a deeply caring adult can easily be mistaken for the appalling intentions of a predator, but we must be able to preserve the aim of giving appropriate tender care to young children.

And, as Jane Lane pointed out, to each other.