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Society, Politics & Law

What do children know about politics, and how do they react?

Updated Tuesday 26th July 2011

Dorothy Moss' research suggests children pick up political stories as part of their every day lives - but it's too glib to assume that their adult allegiances are formed at an early age.

Laurie Taylor:
[After a brief extract of a Soviet-era song] A song about Stalin, recorded by the Children’s Ensemble of the Moscow Chapter of the Union of Official Drivers, 1939. Lots of little children singing happily about the wonders of socialism. It’s not exactly a phenomenon one might come across in the schools of Britain. Although as Alexei Sayle recently reminded us, there are individual classroom exceptions.

Alexei Sayle:
Miss Wilson said “Let’s thank God for the milk, class”. And I said “No Miss Wilson, I think you’ll find that the milk is provided by the Milk Marketing Board which is a semi-autonomous arm of the government and collectivises milk in order to force up the price of milk to make the working classes pay more for a resource that should be subsidised. Class 2C follow me to the sandpit”.

Libby Purves:
What did she say to that?

Alexei Sayle:
I think she must have had a word with the rest of the class and said “He’s special”.

Libby Purves:
Special needs?

Alexei Sayle:
He’s special needs.

Libby Purves:
Special left wing needs.

Alexei Sayle:
Yes, he suffers from dialectical and historical materialism.

Laurie Taylor:
Alexei Sayle on Midweek last September.

Well such thoughts on politics and children are prompted by a new paper in the journal Children’s Society, a paper called the Form of Children’s Political Engagement in Everyday Life. And its author is Dorothy Moss who’s principal lecturer in Childhood Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University. She’s with me now.

Dorothy, your article has nothing to do with that type of explicit connection between politics and children the way as exemplified by Alexei Sayle. You’re more interested, really, in the idea, the general idea that people say 'well, children don’t know anything about politics. They’re not involved in politics'.

Dorothy Moss:
That’s right.

Laurie Taylor:
They have no political instincts. Expand on that a little bit more for me.

Dorothy Moss:
Yes. Basically I’ve been researching children and social change, partly because being in a Childhood Studies Department the tendency is to view children through the lens of school, or the lens of day care, or home, and not look at how every child is influenced by wider social events. A candle burning in a powercut Creative commons image Icon RedEyedRex under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license Early influence: Children of the 1970s recall the power cuts

And this paper looks at how children’s surroundings are politicised, and that the landscapes they move through are politicised.

I mean thinking of the, the Alexei Sayle [anecdote] just there, one of my respondents Apara, came from a long line of socialist trade union activists in the north east and it wasn’t an indoctrination. It was stories, selective memories that were shared with her through her childhood, for example of her grandmother stealing meat and wrapping sausages round her ankles in her wellingtons during the Depression to feed her and, I think it was, her sister’s family.

Laurie Taylor:
It’s a very, very interesting paper because we’re used to hearing a great deal about children and religion aren’t we whether it’s Richard Dawkins talking about parental views on religion being forced down children’s throats or whatever, but here on politics, not quite so much.

You were talking to a number of adults really about their memories and you had a cross section of English society, so that you could look at different sorts of memories.

Let’s talk about some of the things that prompted these memories. I mean one of the things was the police wasn’t it? The presence of the police. This gave a sort-of political slant to a children’s thought.

Dorothy Moss:
Well, there was a whole range of responses to questions about the state and policing. People, children remembered police were like the furniture of childhood. There was George, for example, remembered the police coming in, and into class; and a colouring competition which he won about crossing the road. Lara remembered being told to always look out for a policeman if you get lost in the market.

But also knowing they could give you a clip round the ear. Claudia remembered bumbling bob, bobbies...

Laurie Taylor:
And one child rremembered a story about someone dying in custody.

Dorothy Moss:
Well, there were three that remembered deaths in custody. There was Paulina who remembered the death of David Oluwale. Apara remembered the death of Liddle Towers and Richard who was brought up in apartheid South Africa remembered the death of Biko. They weren’t asked about deaths in custody but from a small sample...

Laurie Taylor:
So these would have been matters that have been brought up in the family?

Dorothy Moss:
Ansd what I’m trying to argue in the paper is through the media, and their alignment politically, happens at a very deep emotional level. There is a sense of fear, a sense of care and a sense of empathy which has to be there for them to align politically.

Laurie Taylor:
Yes it’s quite funny, some of the things which prompt almost a political response. I mean one of the other ones was the power cut wasn’t it?

Dorothy Moss:
Yes.

Laurie Taylor:
Going back, what, to the seventies?

Dorothy Moss:
That’s right. And there were a range of different responses. The respondents were different ages at the time. There were Apara again, a feeling of quite cosiness and security in the family.

All the children actually apart from one enjoyed the power cuts in the sense of the lights going off and the excitement associated with that, the difference, it’s a such a sort of flashbulb memory.

But George remembered the street culture, working class community, in and out of each other’s houses. Cathy and Pamela who enjoyed the events, the excitement remember chuntering, what we call political background noise in the background, that the country could have come to this. So there is this sort of political background noise around children all the time which ..

Laurie Taylor:
And then, as you say it’s the children’s emotional response when their parents talk about an issue. I mean one of the issues you mention is that Enoch Powell Rivers of Blood speech and the effect it had on a child in a Pakistani family.

Dorothy Moss:
Yes. I think there was a very strong fear that reverberated. She was actually in Pakistan at the time. I think she would have been about eight at the time of Powell’s speech. But it’s a memory in her childhood, and in that community.

And she was one of the few who remembered a clear conviction about political voting, that you needed to vote Labour in that community to protect from immigration controls.

Laurie Taylor:
So those are circumstances really in which the children hear their parents explicitly saying “We must do this politically to stop this happening”.

Dorothy Moss:
And then can engage in, it’s happening in their real life. They can connect to something that is a direct threat to their family and community.

But for most of the children there was political distance from the mechanics of voting and participation. Elections would be a day off school. There would be distance, unless there was some real connection to a real life experience there.

Laurie Taylor:
You, you don’t want to draw very simple connections between some of these childhood responses and ways of being involved in politics and later, their later political life. But there’s no doubt that some emotional responses did link to later political concerns didn’t they? I think the area of animal rights was one.

Dorothy Moss:
Yes, there were two respondents of a similar background, both I’d say quite middle class, both white, both quite relatively privileged amongst the group as children who aligned very, very differently in relation to animal rights because of where they lived, and the activities they were involved in.

So one lived in a rural community and was involved in those fox hunting events. She was taught that animal rights people were rent-a-mob and viewed them as quite dangerous. She remembers seeing somebody falling off his horse and it was a neighbour who’d already lost a finger in an agricultural accident so there was a deep feeling there.

The other from a very similar background, other than this geography, really identified very strongly with the animal rights movement and was talking about the cruelty of minks, mink farming in school lessons.

Laurie Taylor:
You can imagine by the way, just referring back to the earlier conversation that some of those very young people you were describing, we were talking about before [in a separate discussion on the Toxteth riots], who were involved in those riots.

Dorothy Moss:
Yes.

Laurie Taylor:
You know that being an extraordinary introduction to politics.

Dorothy Moss:
Absolutely.

Laurie Taylor:
Just one last thing: is there any sort of moral here, any lesson for people who want to encourage children to get involved in politics?

Dorothy Moss:
Well I think the lesson is for for adults. I think the children are, in their real lives, engaged in real events and as we’ve seen with recent events, we’ve seen lots of children and young people active in anti-war movements, in anti-cuts movements.

What the problem is at the moment is the devastation of youth services. And those are the people, the community workers and youth workers who engage with children where their lives really are.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 13th July 2011.

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