Make believe is good for you, and don’t let Dawkins tell you otherwise

imagination, fairies, play, modern childhood

Playing fairies – with cardboard and lots of tape (in my memory our ‘wings’ were a lot shinier than this)

Should we be worried about 21st Century kids’ imaginations?

Born in the late eighties, I feel like I might be part of the last wave of young adults who grew up pretty much untouched by the internet. I remember hearing about ‘the world wide web’ for the very first time on an episode of Newsround after school one day, and having terrifying visions of giant spiders for weeks afterwards. The only computers I remember from my childhood were bulky things with black screens, green text, and a flashing cursor; mildly interesting curiosities that couldn’t hold our attention for long.

I had my first mobile phone around the age of around 15, and I shared it with my older sister. It was a cool silver flippy thing that we liked because it reminded us of the communicators on Star Trek – no internet connection, of course, just calls and texts – and we’d innocently shout out ‘Hey, this one’s for you!’ and pass the phone over whenever a message came for the other person. My teen years were relatively unphotographed, thank goodness (I was awkward and gangly enough as it was, and I have absolutely no doubt that a surplus of instantly analysable digital photographs would have made me intensely insecure), and I joined Facebook the year before going to university as an undergraduate – they had just opened it up to non-university students that same year. These days it seems that children often learn to swipe an iPad before they can talk, and are glued to their phones and Facebook accounts before they hit their teen years. Seeing my seven-month-old’s eyes when she catches glimpses of TV/computer/mobile screens, I can attest to – and fear – the magnetic pull that these modern day visual stimulants have on parents and children alike.

The issue of technology aside for one moment, reading parenting posts like this one about how we all need to chill out and let our children run wild a little more makes me realise that my generation’s experience of childhood might be somewhat under threat in this day and age. So much has changed, so fast. I wouldn’t really know, being new to this parenting thing and still just working out the basics (i.e. how to keep the baby – and myself – alive on a daily basis), but apparently parents these days are much more scared for their children’s safety, and hold themselves hostage to ridiculously high standards.

Is it the internet’s fault, flooding us with an excess of information and airbrushed images, and the kind of overwhelming and often conflicting advice that people used to be able to escape from just by staying away from school-gates gossip and mother-toddler groups? Probably. But from talking to my teacher friends, it seems that current educational theories are slightly to blame, too. One friend told me he stayed up late into the night preparing an elaborate educational cave man interactive display for his primary school class; it sounded like it was the kind of thing children of my generation would have seen as a rare treat on a school trip to a fancy museum, not had as a standard weekly activity in the classroom, made for them by adults outside school hours.

What a horrible amount of pressure on the poor teachers, expected not only to teach and look after children, but also to slave away creating incredible ‘visual aids’ after school hours that will just be thrown away the following week. We had some pretty fun interactive activities when I was at primary school, too, but I remember the teachers mainly supervising while we did most of the work ourselves. That was always the traditional approach, double whammy learning (you learn through doing), right? Why are the adults these days making things so much harder for themselves, when it seems to me that this doesn’t help children, but might in fact have the reverse effect of making them lazy, spoilt, and depriving them of the fun and educational benefits of doing things for themselves?

Writing for The Atlantic, Jessica Lahey seems to agree, saying this:

Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health. The value of free play,  daydreamingrisk-taking, and independent discovery have been much in the news this year, and a new study by psychologists at the University of Colorado reveals just how important these activities are in the development of children’s executive functioning.’

imagination, fairytales, play, modern childhood

Pretending to be Cinderella, sweeping leaves in my fanciest dress and shoes… as you do!

I hear they have ping pong tables in the Google offices – an attempt to harness the creativity-inducing power of ‘play’. It is widely understood that playing – exercising your imagination – has many benefits, including an increase in lateral thinking and problem solving, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Surely the more work you have to do yourself, the fewer gadgets and stimulants you need to play as a young child, the more these mind expanding capacities are practised; the more the important ‘muscle’ of imagination is flexed and strengthened. I love this article which argues that you should give your children sticks instead of iPads for Christmas – perhaps a little extreme, but you get the idea. It’s not that technology is bad as such, it’s more about how you use it; it mustn’t become an addiction, but always remain a means to an end. Enjoying watching TV is fine, as long as going outside to play on a sunny day is more appealing. Fancy gadgets < spontaneous, child-made fun.

I suppose at the heart of this particularly modern problem is just this: fear. Parents have always feared for their children, of course, and wanted the best for them; that is nothing new. But what is new is the surplus of available luxury ‘stuff’, play-aids if you will, and it is now easier than ever for parents (and teachers) to indulge their fear and over-supervise, over-provide. I’m no child psychologist, but in my humble opinion it seems obvious that the more stimulation you have, the less work you have to do, and the less the muscles of your imagination are stretched and developed. Some of my best teachers at school didn’t ever touch a slide projector or laptop, simply capturing our imaginations by how they talked, and the stories that they told us.

It takes courage and a good deal of patience to let your children run a little wild. I consider myself so blessed that my parents had those qualities in abundance. Mum let us ruin her favourite scarf in a game in which we pretended to be astronauts dangling from a chain of scarves hanging from the bannisters, and use up lots of her perfume making a scent trail for a hide and seek game where you had to sniff your way to the hiding person (we called it ‘fox and hound’). We regularly slid down the stairs on a mattress, took over entire rooms of the house with complex blanket forts, commandeered the kitchen to cook our parents romantic dinners of cold fishfingers and overcooked peas at our ‘restuarant’. I’m sure there were plenty of times when they had to resist the urge to stop us making a mess, wished that they could just tastefully decorate the Christmas tree themselves, or worried that we’d hurt ourselves messing around in the kitchen. But ultimately they knew that allowing us to try things for ourselves, to make a mess, to take a few risks, was better for us than having a picture perfect life.

But is there really any need to defend the importance of make-believe, and the imagination? Well… Dawkins recently fired up that debate again with his attack on fairytales.* As far as I’m concerned, Chesterton already came up with the perfect answer to that, about a century ago:

G. K. Chesterton quote fairytales imagination bogey childhood

A friend recently referred to our babies as ‘wildflower children’, a phrase which I love. I hope my daughter always remains a wildflower; a little grubby and dishevelled, perhaps, but with a strong imagination, and a healthy love of make-believe and fairytale.

 

*I just wanted to add that while Richard Dawkins himself later argued that what he said about fairy tales had been taken out of context, backtracking on Twitter and saying he just wanted to open up the question of whether or not they were good for children, I still think his initial comments about fairy tales were very misguided. Read more here, and come to your own conclusions.

In pursuit of an aesthetic ideal

When I set up this blog and put it online about a week and a half ago, I thought that few people other than my friends and family would see it as I slowly transferred material that I had saved from my old blog to this new one. As #CapForStrat suddenly became a worldwide phenomenon, however, I quickly reached over 100,000 page views in under a week.

I’m now going to start putting up some old material as I had planned to do before all of this happened; it will be rather random and varied, and probably not of interest to most of the people who find their way here after hearing about the Avengers assembling for my dad, but I hope you find some of it interesting. If you want to read posts on a particular theme, you can find some tags at the bottom of the homepage of this blog to help you find what you’re looking for. All of the Avengers posts are grouped under ‘personal’, so just click on that tag to see those.

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In 2012, the film adaptations of two of my favourite books, The Great Gatsby and On The Road, happened to come out within the same year. This coincidence naturally created an interesting parallel between the two heroes, Jay Gatsby and Dean Moriarty, and I wrote a piece comparing them for the journal of the Alliance of Literary Societies in May 2012 (before the films came out). The theme of that issue was ‘fashion and literature’, and writing this piece made me think about how often we separate the natural and unnatural, genuine and inauthentic into totally separate categories, whereas the reality is actually a lot more fluid than that. No matter how little thought we think we give to our ‘personal style’, we are always, to a certain extent choosing how to present ourselves to the world. Which makes me think of this great quote from Linda Grant’s The Thoughtful Dresser:

‘I consider it to be absolutely normal to care deeply about what we wear, and detest the puritan moralists who affect to despise fashion and those who love it. Who shrilly proclaim that only vain, foolish Barbie dolls, their brains addled by consumerism, would wear anything but sensible clothes made to last. As if appearances don’t matter when, most of the time, they are all we have to go on. Or sometimes all that is left in the ruins of a life. So I no longer take seriously those derisory accusations levelled against those who are interested in clothes. You might as well accuse Proust, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot – all of whom wrote about clothes and thought about clothes. I certainly won’t take it from those men who judge and condemn us women for the various failures of our appearance while simultaneously barking that only feeble shallow creatures such as women would pay any attention to how they look.’

But that’s a slight digression from the piece I wrote about Gatsby and Dean. This extract is published with the kind permission of the Alliance of Literary Societies:

 

 

There is something very earnest and genuine about both Gatsby and Dean. Both excite a flurry of admirers and critics who gather around them wherever they go; true disciples who watch and listen faithfully, phonies grasping at the indescribable aura of magic that surrounds them, and people who are jealous and say that they’re fakes, or mad.

Gatsby’s ability to put his guests at ease with his smile, which makes you feel as if he understood you ‘just so far as you wanted to be understood’, has the quality of a supernaturally given gift: ‘It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.’ He gives you the impression that he is seeing beyond the material world and into your very soul, like a kind of benign deity who is always on your side. Similarly, Dean is described by Sal as a kind of visionary or mystic: ‘a kind of holy lightning I saw flashing from his excitement and his visions’. (The name for the Beat Generation, in fact, came from Kerouac’s fascination with the theological idea of the Beatific Vision, a mysterious connection with the Divine.)

Style is at the heart of the magnetism of both heroes, although while at first it appears effortless for them, it becomes clear that Gatsby at least has pursued it, working hard to build the magnificent illusion. On the other hand, when Dean’s style is compared with the try-hard, studied ‘cool’ of the wannabes he encounters, it almost seems that his elegance is something accidental. ‘His dirty workclothes clung to him so gracefully, as though you couldn’t buy a better fit from a custom tailor but only earn it from the Natural Tailor of Natural Joy, as Dean had,’ Sal says.

He goes on later to describe in contrast a ‘horrible sight’ that they see in a bar one night: ‘a white hipster fairy had come in wearing a Hawaiian shirt and was asking the big drummer if he could sit in.’ He goes about ‘mincing’ when he talks, and ‘swaying his neck with that complacent Reichi-analyzed ecstasy that doesn’t mean anything except too much tea and soft foods and goofy kicks on the cool order.’ He is trying too hard, it is too studied and not genuine enough – his grace hasn’t been earned like Dean’s has, according to Sal.

Perhaps, however, Gatsby’s pursuit of an aesthetic ideal is no more artificial than Dean’s seemingly natural aesthetic. All style, all fashion is inherently a construct with choices and a certain amount of reasoning behind those choices, whether conscious or unconscious. Gatsby’s particular reason for buying his brightly coloured array of magnificent shirts – his desire to impress a woman – simply exposes the fact that there is a certain self-awareness behind even the most natural style icon. After all, Dean ‘digs’ a trumpet player whose lips curl in ‘Billie Holiday’s hip sneer’. What distinguishes him from the ‘hip fairy’ he so despised is that the trumpet player pulls the look off, he has made it his own, he has claimed it and seems to really mean it. Sal describes how Dean’s California is a ‘land where everybody somehow looked like broken down, handsome, decadent movie actors’; seemingly effortlessly cool, perhaps, but still, at the heart of it, players who are putting on an act.

And so the quest continues, Dean’s ‘bug’ for travelling, his never-ending desire to experience ‘It’, Gatsby’s elaborate parties and his gold baths and impeccable manners. Their restless strivings encompass both the holy and the superficial, and they are never quite finished. To finish, even to slow down, is to die. For Gatsby, his journey is about regaining something lost in the past: ‘He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy.’ It is never really about Daisy, but as Nick says, rather it is about an unattainable ideal that he feels is connected with her.

Dean’s motivations are similarly ephemeral and difficult to describe: “That Rollo Greb is the greatest, most wonderful of all. That’s what I was trying to tell you – that’s what I want to be. I want to be like him. He’s never hung-up, he goes every direction, he lets it all out, he knows time, he has nothing to do but rock back and forth. Man, he’s the end! You see, if you go like him all the time you’ll finally get it,” he says to Sal. When Sal replies: “Get what?” Dean simply says: “IT! IT! I’ll tell you – now no time, we have no time now.”

That ‘It’ that both Dean and Gatsby are chasing, in their own ways, is some kind of high aesthetic ideal. Dean never does explain what ‘It’ means, though; there is never enough time.