(Imagine a picture of a window here please. I had lots on my now broken hard drive).
Why and how does self-expression become something shameful? Is there a moment, possibly somewhere between toddlerhood and childhood, where you perceive an expectation, a sense of ‘normal’ and yield to conform to it? Why conform to a selective view or opinion of ‘normal’?
We cities of humans like to belong and we sometimes learn, feel or believe that to belong we need to ‘conform’; we need to be all alike. And we, at such a young age, rarely if ever can even guess or dream that are other ‘normals’ in the wider world. Our world is narrow, perhaps within the confines of just one ‘home’, maybe stretched a little with hazy perceptions and understanding of other children’s situations through nurseries, preschools, hospitals and television.
The moment that a child steps into childhood is the moment that they begin their progress, emotionally and mentally, towards becoming an adult. Being a baby is a self-indulgent affair, you can be what you like where you like, when you like. You don’t have to conform to any social standards or expectations. You can eat whenever you want, you can throw up when the whim takes you, you can poo in your pants. You cry and someone will come running. The world is all about you.
Childhood seems to have attained an almost mythical standing in our culture, we see it as a halcyon period, an idyll. But only when we look back reflectively or wistfully or when we speak of childhood in abstract terms. The reality is that childhood is about learning to conform.
Maybe you challenge that. However, especially if you are a parent yourself, reflect on what your aims are, even on a daily level, for a child. You want them to eat ‘nicely’, you want them to dress ‘properly’, you want them to speak ‘politely’ … the list goes on. These are expectations, rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, which you and the wider society will impose on each and every child.
Belonging is one of the most precious experiences that a human can ever experience; it is the whole point of being a human. So I’m not really arguing that parents, or other adults, educating children is a problem. The problem is when that ‘belonging’ has to come at the price of something else.
I guess all parents have expectations, hopes and dreams for their new-born. Yet, they’ve probably not even met him or her! This is where the problem is, this is where that price is paid.
Do parents, or any of the other adults, surrounding a child, who are that child’s ‘city’, force the child to conform? You may have dreamt of a violin-playing virtuoso for the last three, four years but what happens when your child is deaf or just has no musical interest whatsoever? Maybe you’ve got secret wishes for your child to have the education and career that you never could have had yourself, is that fair to project that onto a child whose skills, talents, aptitudes are not within the (narrow) academic spectrum?
Children want to please. All humans want to please those they love. It’s a simple truth. But to please, to be accepted, to conform, to belong, how do they have to please you? And is it at the price of their own skills and talents?
If you teach a child that success is knowing one’s times tables by the age of six, what happens when the child is slow to learn even to count? They will, and do, quickly come to the conclusion that they’re a failure. Is that fair?
If you only encourage and reward a child when he or she succeeds in one area, such as mathematics, will they try to develop their own inherent aptitudes? Or will they just focus on that one area where you want them to succeed, in that one area where they now believe that success is only possible? Is that fair?
Disinterest is often keenly perceived by young children desperately seeking to ‘read’ the world and people around them. If you show no interest in their drawing but praise their counting, what does a child learn? And if this happens time and after time?
Well, the child will come to the conclusion that drawing is not desirable, that it’s not even acceptable. They may even come to the conclusion that it isn’t permissible.
(Well you did say to stop drawing and get on with something more important).
Why the examples of mathematics and drawing? Well, I suck at both, to be honest, but it is much easier to quantify success in a subject like maths whereas drawing and other creative pursuits, they just come down to taste, opinion, even fashion. We live in a society that likes quantifiable success, academic success which comes down to grades, percentages, facts. Facts which are the same for every single person, 1+1 is always going to have the same answer. It’s easy to assess, to quantify success. Ask someone to draw a picture and who can really say whether it’s ‘good’?
(My answer to 1+1= is always window, which is why I probably never ‘succeeded’).
And with children entering academic systems earlier and earlier with increasing pressure from exams, scattered like threats across their school years, and with schools and teachers themselves being pressured to ‘succeed’, there is a real danger that self-expression is lost in favour of those ‘facts’.
Self-expression is a beautiful thing, without creativity none of those precious ‘facts’ would have been possible. Sciences may claim to be cold and scientific but they are made of thousands of bubbles of creative thoughts and moments. People who thought outside the box, people who challenged the ‘facts’.
When a child internalises the message that creativity is shameful, we are taking something even more precious away. And creativity is so closely bound up with identity, how can anyone dare to even think to take that away from someone?
I learnt, although later in childhood because I clearly was a slow developer, that creativity was shameful. It was wasteful, self-indulgent, weird, different … in other words, unacceptable. I learnt too that creativity was never deemed a ‘success’, that there was far more ‘important’ things that I ‘should’ be doing or learning. I learnt that not only was I expected to ‘do better’ (how many times have you said that to a child especially to their artwork?) but that doing better meant doing something else.
Creativity became something shameful. It became a failure because I could never be good at it and it wasn’t really acceptable. I took the criticism seriously and heard the messages loud and clear that there were better, more important things that I should be doing. Then somewhere along the way, I also lost myself.
The two are closely entwined. Identity cannot succeed where it is only the labels that others give to you or where you are forced, or forcing yourself, to conform to some unwritten, barely spoken expectation. Being yourself is an act of creativity, of self-expression. Both require confidence. Both require support and encouragement from childhood. After all, the goal shouldn’t be to make children who ‘succeed’ but to form, educate, train, develop children to become successful humans. There is a huge difference between the two, believe me. We need creativity, it is who we are.