Is treating children as people a Modernist idea?

In 2009 I happened to attend The Toys of the Avant-Garde, a temporary exhibition held in the Picasso Museum in Malaga. A multi-lingual book was published as the catalog to the Picasso Museum’s exhibition of the same name. It was a bitter disappointment. The Museum was credited as publisher. No author was named on the cover. The images were lovely, and fascinating. But the writing, on casual inspection, was bad verging on terrible.

In contrast, the exhibition itself was filled with very interesting things- objects and quotes. All were the product of an effort, an artistic effort as well as a social and political one, to treat children with respect and to aid them in their development. The modernist movement, or at least some of its artistic adherents, believed that by encouraging children to be imaginative and creative, they could free the next generation from the errors which had just blighted the world. 

Amongst the exhibits included a room filled with the furniture designed for children’s rooms and for Primary Schools across Europe. The surprising thing is how the artists hit upon many of the things which are now taken for granted. Many of the model furnished rooms could have come from a current Primary School and not look out of place. Clean lines, solid construction, bright colours and the placement of items such as hooks and rails at a height suitable for children to use themselves were all part of the movement’s efforts to respect that the fact that they were not designing for a School Board, or government. Rather they were designing for the children themselves. 

Also included were examples of wooden toys and games. Of great interest to me were the building block sets described as Kindergarten Gift Sets. Though spectacularly expensive when first introduced, the idea was to allow the children of a village or neighbourhood to create objects together and explore the physical world, in groups, in as open a way as possible, through free play. A collection of geometric shapes, arches and curves, the sets were painted in bold colours and instantly familiar to anyone who has been a child in the last 70 years.

And finally, as a special treat for me, I turned around and found myself looking at original pages from the Chicago Sunday Tribune Kin-der-kids comic strip, sent to the paper from Germany, where their creator was also an established modernist artist. Also, even better, the framed artist’s sketches for the famous introductory cartoon of the Author/artist Lyonel Feininger as puppet master with his soon to be introduced characters as his playthings. The Kin-der-kids weren’t mainly intended for children to read- they were a mass audience strip. But I can’t resist the chance to use the picture as I love it so. 

Alienation: A Tea-Time Treat

I recently wrote about The Changes (1975) as an example of the alienation from society which children’s television dramas reflected as the UK’s postwar social contract was torn apart.

Whatever the reason, the shape of children’s dramas was rarely the reassuring US superhero narrative arc of the dangerous outsider being heroically repelled. Rather, we may almost take it for granted that the pillars of establishment we meet in a CBBC drama are either corrupt and malevolent or stupid and ineffectual. Village leaders will try to stone children as witches, or turn out to be in league with an ancient evil stuck in a black hole. Parents will be distant or absent at best, or actively obstructive at worst.

Of course, if you are going to have a young protagonist, narratively it helps to set them up as having to act without the safety net of adult assistance. Famously, Roald Dahl disposed of the hero’s parents in James and the Giant Peach by casually having them eaten by a rhino in the opening pages. 

But there is more to this than just upping the stakes for our heros. Britain since Suez was a place where the people in charge were more likely to be wrong than right. The nation learned that, at best, authority figures were just making it up as they went along. Just as likely, they were lying. 

The writers who grew up through that humiliation of the 1950s Suez fumbles, lived through the upheavals of the 1960s settled into their writing career in the 1970s. After all that had happened, is it surprising that they spent the next 30 years drumming the same message- Do Not Trust Power- into their viewers? 

Alternatively, you could argue that children on the cusp of adulthood are naturally alienated from adult society, but no longer fully in the childhood state. Is it any wonder that children’s dramas are filled with only children? Every child feels themselves alone. 

Some dramas tackled this head on. Archer’s Goon, an adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ superlative book of the same name, deals (as every one of her novels do in one way or other) with the problem of families. Screaming sisters, unreliable fathers, gods and monsters in the family. Who wouldn’t feel out of place and unsettled trying to develop a sense of self in those circumstances? The creators’ understood that the children watching were likely struggling with the same emotions, even if not actually fighting a family of wizards while doing it.

Children struggle to find their place in adult society under even the best conditions. And writers, trying to make sense of both their experiences of society and to communicate them to children, have to balance reassurance with warnings. The magic comes when the writer and the children both recognise each other as co-conspirators. When each whispers, in view of the grown ups, but unheeded by them “We are not like them.”

I hate I Love Kids TV

“Hey, who remembers [insert audience age appropriate children’s television programme name]?”

Anyone who thinks children’s programmes are worthwhile in themselves will wilt when exposed to this question. It comes at the start of a painful stand-up bit or as the introduction to a 3 hour clips show strung together by almost-recognised faces reading words written by Stewart Maconie from an autocue. 

The question really means, weren’t we stupid for loving this absurd world we believed in? It invites us to sneer at our childhood selves. 

It is a betrayal. Children commit themselves to their programmes. Our imaginative landscape growing up is populated by landmarks from our reading and viewing. They are the food that nourishes our imaginative development. Sniggering at the the shoddy sets on Doctor Who or the absurdity of a Magic Door is kicking at the root of the things that we loved when we loved most truly.