Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Innocent Until Proven Experienced - Charlie Butler

One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons depicts a nursery worker explaining her establishment’s ethos to a pair of prospective parents. “We teach them that the world can be an unpredictable, dangerous and sometimes frightening place,” she says as toddlers play around her feet, “while being careful not to spoil their lovely innocence. It’s tricky.”
That combination of mutually-exclusive demands – teach our children about the world, while keeping them innocent of the world – is one that children’s writers also face, from parents and others. When I talk to adults about children’s literature one of the qualities mentioned most often is that of “innocence”. Books that represent innocence, and especially books that work to preserve innocence in their young readers, are to be applauded. Books that raise unpleasant subjects, or include taboos such as death, sex, violence and abuse are to be treated with suspicion. For teenagers, maybe – but for young children? At the same time, there is a demand that books should have some kind of educative value, teaching children about the world in which they live and preparing them for adult life.
As a matter of fact – and this may seem an embarrassing admission for a children’s writer to make – I’m not at all sure what innocence is. It’s usually discussed as if it were a positive quality, but the only ways it seems to be commonly defined are in terms of a lack: lack of experience, lack of knowledge, lack of adult responsibility, lack of cynicism, heedlessness, perhaps even heartlessness. Perhaps innocence is like Captain Hook’s “good form”: you’re not allowed into Pop until you can prove that you don’t know you’ve got it.
I think that there are two contending ideas about childhood here, ones that go far beyond children’s literature and early-years education. They can be represented by two Biblical texts:
Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10.14)

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly: but then face to face. (I Cor 13.11)

Jesus and St Paul seem here to be singing from different hymn sheets. What are we to make of it? Is growing up a fall from grace, or a consummation to be wished? It may be relevant to remember that St Paul, who I think rather liked the idea of being able to mix it with the Greek philosophers, was addressing a Greek audience. For Greeks such as Aristotle children were simply incomplete adults. Human development was teleological: it had a direction and a goal, that of being a mature (and preferably male) human being. In that context it makes perfect sense to put away childish things, and to associate children with poor spiritual vision. After all, they’re only half finished.
But this Hellenic vision of childhood seems quite incompatible with the one articulated by Jesus, which reverses the direction of travel and says that one must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. These opposing visions have coexisted uneasily throughout the last two thousand years. You can watch them contending in all sorts of places. For those of us interested in the history of language, it’s enlightening to see how individual words can become a battle-ground. “Silly,” for example, is now a pejorative – but in Elizabethan English it means something much closer to “inexperienced”, while in older forms yet it means “blessed” or “holy” (as modern German selig still does). That particular word, we might say, has fallen prey to the Pauline vision of childhood. “Innocent” is at the centre of a similar tussle. We like children to be innocent, and in law innocent is the desirable opposite of guilty; but no one wants to be considered an innocent. That would be to be thought ... well, silly.
As the nursery worker said: it’s tricky. But it might help if I had a better idea of what innocence actually was.


Anonymous said...

Innocence in this context is ignorance of bad things. In the adult world, it has no value, because it makes a person vulnerable and dangerous to others.

In the world of children, it is also dangerous - ever watched a father trying to explain to a son why he should not step on his little brother's throat? Very hard to do without the concept of "death" and "injury". Similarly, road safety and stranger danger.

On the other hand, too much information about - or experience of - the bad stuff, too early warps a child's world view.

So, I think good childrens books tell the truth about the world, but in ways and doses that the children can handle and contextualise.

Cathy Butler said...

On the whole I agree with you, but I frequently hear innocence lauded as a something precious that should be preserved as long as possible, in a way that goes far beyond the principle of not exposing children to things they're unequipped to handle.

Go away google said...

I've never had much truck with the idea of lovely innocence. By its very nature it's a concept people with power - knowledge - project onto people who don't. In any case, the biological and psychological drive of a child is all focused on becoming an adult, something which involves losing innocence as fast as possible. So if childhood and ignorance are in some way sacred, then every child every born has been biologically programmed in the wrong way. This seems unlikely to me!

John Dougherty said...

@Anna Bowles: "the biological and psychological drive of a child is all focused on becoming an adult, something which involves losing innocence as fast as possible".

Really? Yes, children are driven to develop, but surely the logical extension of your argument is that to introduce a 5-year-old to sexual activity or armed conflict would be to do the child a favour - which, to make myself clear, I'm sure you're not suggesting!

I'd argue that a child is driven biologically and psychologically to progress to the next stage of development at an appropriate rate; and that childhood itself consists of several such stages. And for me, the preservation of innocence involves not introducing children to ideas and experiences they're not yet able to cope with.

michelle lovric said...

Such an interesting and well-thought-out post, Charlie! Thank you. It is notable that innocence is not a quality that children themselves spend a lot of time thinking about - or wondering if they still have it or not. Is its popularity among adults part of our tendency - since the 19th century - to romanticise childhood? (I now hear adolescents already romanticising their own childhoods with quite outrageous sentimentality).
We've just been watching The Wire, the third series, which focuses on education. In that, an education expert tries to find Baltimore children who have not yet become part of the drug trade, for a social experiment. He starts thinking he can 'convert' 18 year olds and gradually lowers his expectations and age range further and further. And the children talk of being 'schooled' - meaning becoming experienced in how to perform their role in the corner drug business. Hurtful and horrible, but compelling watching too.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A very interesting debate Charlie. And I agree with Michelle, there's this element of romanticising childhood in the same way that Lawrence Van der Post romanticised the San Bushmen by describing them as 'innocent' children tripping happily, withou a care in the world, over the African plains. It reeks of paternalism. Your nursery worker is spot on... it's getting the balance right in writing that's so tricky.

Josh Lacey said...

Very interesting: the thought of innocence as the opposite of both guilt and experience. I immediately thought of Blake, who was undoubtedly on the side of Jesus rather than St Paul.

Cathy Butler said...

Yes, Blake has a very interesting and complex attitude to the whole question.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Anna Bowles and really like that phrase:

"It's a concept people with power - knowledge - project onto people who don't."

@John Dougherty has got the wrong idea. Anna is NOT saying: "let's introduce a five-year-old to sexuality or armed conflict." (As indeed, you acknowledge she isn't).

There is a HUGE difference between children exploring sexuality and/or conflict in their own world and by themselves FREE of adults - and having it imposed by those more powerful than they and with quite different and distorting agendas.

Kids are anarchic and sensitive and resilient and vulnerable etc

But I think "innocence" is often used rather yuckily to project this "aw, so sweet..." on to a complex human being.

Having people respond to my superficial "sweetness" as a small child did ME no favours!