The unit comprising parents and their kids, known also (rather aptly I think) as the “nuclear family”, has many advantages. Autonomy is not to be sneezed at, and a bit of distance from extended family can be constructive. But there are also a few downsides. A committee of two adults seems rather small to be making big decisions about people too young to contest them, so there’s often a feeling of colossal responsibility. Then there is the childcare issue. It’s all on you. Unless, of course, you have the finance to pay someone else to do it. Enter The Nursery.
The Nursery is filled with hard working, well meaning and compassionate staff who do an amazing job of making children feel happy and comfortable, all whilst being paid well under the odds for their work. The Nursery is also the first step on the school system ladder, the first time your child will be assessed as anything other than cute, hilarious or grumpy. His or her needs will be filed, behaviours analysed, and any problems will be identified and acted upon, by people with qualifications. You can tell them apart from the workers on “the floor”: they have clipboards and badges.
They want to know how your child functions in a room full of screaming kids of a similar age. Is your child “taking part”, “joining in”, able to “communicate their needs”? I have been in these rooms. I’ve had fifty three years to get over my fear of them. All that happened is that a childhood fear became an adult aversion. As a two year old, however, I only had one need I wanted to communicate: to get the f*** out of there.
I have older two kids, now teenagers: at pre-school, primary school and secondary school the conversation went like this, for both of them….
Teacher : “Oh they always have their head in a book”.
Me: “OK that’s great…I’m glad they enjoy that. I enjoy that too.”
Teacher: “…they are doing so well at school, good grades, helpful, a pleasure to teach.”
Me: “Ah great, I’m glad they are not causing you any trouble.”
Teacher: “The thing is, they don’t put their hand up in class, and that’s a bit of a worry.”
Me: “Is it?”
Teacher: “Yes, if they know the answer to a question they should say so. It builds confidence.”
Me: Shrugs (thinks: “for whom, the student or the teacher?”)
(Actually, the exchange never went like this. I would usually nod and say “ah OK” and pretend to understand, perhaps giving a couple of suitably pitying looks – you know the type, that slick professional faux-empathic face that seems to crumple in the middle from the sheer force of caring…Then when we got out of the meeting I’d say to my daughter or son: “Ah OK, same old shit, I’m glad you’re enjoying school, I did too. And I never put my hand up either. And I don’t now. It’s all fine, do what you’re doing, it seems to be working.”)
This was fifteen years ago. My youngest son is two and a half. and we are back here again. He is….. Two and a half. If, by a certain date, he has not achieved targets of easy going confidence and loudmouthery, then, we are told, the “investigation as to why he is socially anxious needs to go a little deeper.”
Social anxiety, we are told, is not the same as introversion. Introverts don’t like being around large groups of people. Socially anxious people fear it. I am not a scientist, but I’m not sure at two years old you can separate these two categories. (Teacher: “Are you afraid of all these people?” Small child: Turns away and points to an empty corner of the room). I don’t like the “correctional” overtones of this approach, almost like taking your young son out to do manual work to “man him up”. But I can’t say I blame the messengers in this case. They have a job to do. But they are also answerable to a system of what I shall call “Extrovertiarchy” because I like to make up words. Even the boxes they have to tick seem somehow to be part of an extrovert world, a simple yes or no, an answer at face value without nuance. Where, for example, is the testing environment where a child is left alone with one box of lego for half an hour? How did they do? Did they simply throw it around the room until somebody came to play with them, or did they build a multi-storey car park with motorised gates and an integrated miniature fare paying system?
Here’s a handy guide (one of many) to what constitutes introversion. Jonathan Rauch’s observation on extroverts is particularly pointed:
“Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion,” Rauch suggests. “They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood.”
Taking “umbrage” at the need to be alone is the privilege of those who seek to asses our children. The list of traits found in introversion are, it seems, cardinal sins when you are in the schooling system, and also will mark you out as potentially “strange” as an adult. Of course, the usual list of “famous” people who were introverts is supposed to make us all feel better, the idea that you can “channel” your weirdness into genius. It’s a good reason not to try and stop our children developing into the perfectly happy introverts they are destined to become. But it’s not enough to only allow visionaries the privilege of their own company, the space to de-compress. There’s a kind of moral compass at work that says “normal” is “extrovert”. A normal person can sit happily whilst two or more people try and ask you different questions simultaneously, or while a speech therapist with a voice like a mouse with a jet of compressed air up its arse tries to coax out your underlying self confidence….”Look, it’s a dinosaur! A din-o-saur….squeak squeak”.
I love my son’s nursery, but you can’t help feeling they are victims too, trying to achieve the impossible by converting everyone to a way of seeing the world that is hard wired into us way before they get there.
Extroversion rules. It is a marker of well adjustment and good mental health. Big crowds of shouting strangers are a fact of life, and one that occurs with alarming regularity. Social media is full of bug eyed, self promoting lunatics and influencers who manage to similarly shouty with only one person as a prop. These paragons of self assuredness are everywhere. Introverts don’t like them, but we are a minority, and that’s how we like it. You need a system to kick against. Please don’t fix anything or we’d have nothing to shy away from. As a fashionable minority, we are where we want to be, tucked away under what passes for reality.