Child centred education fits rather well into our decadent, self-indulgent culture, which has enshrined the principle that self-gratification at all costs is the goal of life. And we start them young. Coming out of the supermarket the other day, I saw a little two year old trotting along in front of his mother, wearing a T-shirt on which was proudly emblazoned, ‘I CALL THE SHOTS’.
What hope is there for classrooms when mothers see nothing wrong with having such poison scrawled across the chests of their infants? Similarly revolting T-shirts for young children feature slogans such as ‘I’M THE BOSS’. From an early age, children are learning to think that they are the centre of the universe. A teacher friend of mine once overheard two mothers talking in a shop, when one of their little darlings was acting up. ‘He’s going to school soon,’ she remarked. ‘They’ll sort him out.’
But it goes even further back. Mothers are now told by the National Health Service to feed their babies ‘on demand’, when previously they were told to space feeds out regularly. So we have anxious mothers stuffing babies full of food whenever they emit the slightest whimper. The trend continues as the child grows, with snacks on demand between meals. And we wonder why we have an obesity problem.
All of these notions depend on the Romantic ideology that the child knows best, that the child is somehow sacred and to be adored and honoured. As Wordsworth put it, ‘The child is father of the man’, so we’d better listen to our fathers! They call the shots.
Thus we run around tending to every little demand of our infants, without considering that in fact they need training in self-control. They need to learn to delay gratification, to refuse to eat the marshmallow, maybe even to give the marshmallow to their younger sister. This training must begin early, because it is not primarily about reason but about habits. If children are in the habit of only eating at meals, then they will find it much easier to resist the temptation to snack as they grow older and make decisions for themselves. If children are in the habit of listening quietly to adults, then they will find it much easier to resist the temptation to become distracted in class. All of these habits can successfully be established from a very young age, and in other, more traditional cultures, they are.
But how many parents are training their young children to be patient, polite and respectful? And how many are feeding them on demand, with snacks, television, video games? I recently saw a young couple on the tram with their toddler in a pushchair. The father held up his smartphone to his daughter, and she sat placidly gazing at the screen. She had been successfully neutralised. But was she learning the habit of patiently putting up with slight personal inconvenience?
With the widespread abdication of parental responsibility, an ever greater burden falls on schools to train children in good habits. But if even we fail in our duty, then what is left for young people but a life based on self-indulgent, distracted gratification, with mouths crammed full of marshmallow and heads full nothing but the howl of pop stars who tell them to follow what they feel?