Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Reflections on a Teenage Bra Twanger

When is an assault not an assault?

According to the account given by this mother, the answer to that question is when it’s a 15 year old boy twanging the bra strap of a 15 year old girl. 

I've read this story through a few times and while I accept a certain degree of poetic license to the way the conversation unfolded,  I'm have no doubt that the core message is true.

Let’s face it, this is not an outrageous situation; the sad truth is that similar conversations are happening the world over and have been for decades.

Boys pull pigtails; they look up girl’s skirts; they snap their bras; why? Because “boys will be boys”.

We use that same phrase to excuse some pretty crappy behaviour.

When I read this latest article, you know what saddened me the most? It was the surprise that the school and parents apparently feel when the boy’s behaviour is challenged.
"The boy’s mum is still crying and his dad looks both angry and embarrassed. The teacher won’t make eye contact with me."
Why was the situation a shock to any of these people? Had they never met the boy before? Were they completely ignorant of his upbringing and values?

Are we really in 2015 and STILL believing that consent is something that we magically learn once we hit the age of majority? Are there parents and teachers walking this earth in the genuine belief that young people wake one day, yawn, stretch, have a quick scratch and then rise with a new found wisdom that “no means no”?

Bodily integrity is something that we deal with on a near daily basis because there is always a child who is loving too much, playing too hard, or just plain ornery.

It’s a repetitive discussion: Being hit does not give you permission to hit back; loving someone doesn't give you the right to hug them; people have the right to change their mind.

That last one is the one that causes us all the most headaches.

I can see the children struggle with the idea even as I explain it to them: Usually it is a game of chase that has ended in tears because Esme has become bored but Alfie is determined to keep chasing her anyway. I can see his brow furrow with confusion; he asked if she wanted to play chase, she said yes, what’s the problem?

The problem is she changed her mind.

That concept of ongoing consent might be a strange one for a child but I sometimes think it is the most important concept I will introduce to them: I don’t want to raise children who feel trapped by the decision they have made if that decision no longer fits.

And I don’t want to raise children who look at consent as some sort of box ticking exercise when what we are really looking at is whether someone has the empathy and connection to their fellow man to give the most basic of fucks about how their actions make them feel.

Maybe this story is best viewed as a parable that helps remind us that consent is not static, but fluid. I find myself looking past the name of the student to the lesson of the story and the potential is has for us to speak openly with the next generation about respect and empathy.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Art and the Female Form

Last night we played Late Bedtime Roulette to take the children out in town. We try not to do it very often, because any activity that takes place after dinner is universally unwelcome to my offspring.

Still, God loves a trier, so try we do.

There was a concert in the park, and it was also the first night of The Performance Arcade 2015 so the entire waterfront had a chilled out vibe with the lilt of music and the smell of food stalls floating on the warm evening air.

I will share some of my photos from the evening next week, but despite being singularly unqualified to talk about art, there is one piece from the Arcade which has bored into my mind and demands that I tell its story.

Viewing #2 by Kelsey Woodford is housed in a shipping container, just like all the others around it. You wait your turn and step inside to be greeted by a beautiful young lady wearing nothing but a warm smile. In her hand is a Polaroid camera and on the walls around her are photos of all the visitors she has received: Her piece is intended to reverse the role of the nude from passive viewee to active viewer and to challenge how we view nudes in art.

But Kelsey accidentally challenges another perspective with her figure and that is the the very definition of a beautiful woman.

From Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Kelsey is the owner of a stunningly Boticelli-esque figure, which is very much at odds with the current fashion for size bugger-all hips and spindly gapped thighs. She shouldn't exude a warm confidence about her body, she should be covering up, hiding in her room crying into her salad and wishing she were thinner.

She's not; and her statement has been playing on my mind because I just couldn't shake the comparison to Boticelli's nudes.

It felt like an obvious comparison because Boticelli was an artist who courted controversy his entire career. But looking past the scandal of painting women as sexual, he also made a bold statement about beauty by painting women with curves when large swathes of the population could barely consume enough calories to stop themselves from blowing over in a stiff breeze.

How strange to realise that we have come full circle and how comforting to know that the grass has always been greener when it comes to the size of our bodies.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Story Of The Watermelon Seeds

We eat a lot of watermelon, mostly because it is one of the few fruit that Miss Olive will allow to pass her lips. That wasn't always the case, at first her opinion of watermelon was the same as any other fruit and could probably be best described as deep mistrust. Then I took a gamble and shoved a small piece into he mouth mid complaint and lo, she doth adore the melon made of water.

Eating watermelon can be a great lesson in how plants grow

But that's not the real story here, the story is the story that I have to tell the children every single time we eat watermelon (which as I have already mentioned is A LOT) so I thought it might be nice to write it down ready for the moment we have to write wedding speeches:

The scene is set; Keith has brought the melon to the table on a board and is busy cutting it into cubes when one of the children, usually Esme, will turn a furrowed brow to me:

Child: Tell us the story of the pits

Me: Again?! OK, so once there was a watermelon plant who wondered how it could get its seeds far away so they could grow in their own soil.

Child: And a dog has legs ...

Me: Umm, yes a dog has legs, but the plant doesn't so how can it spread its seed?

Child: ... and poo!

Me: Again yes, but we're still talking about the watermelon plant. So the watermelon plant puts all its seeds into the biggest, sweetest, juiciest fruit it can grow

Child: And I eat it

Me: Yes! Yes you eat it. An then the pig comes along and nom, nom, nom it eats a bit ...

Child: And does a poo

Me: After a while, it does a poo, a bit like you. When you eat something it goes through your body and once you have taken all the ...

Child: And the seeds are in the poo.

Me: They are, but when you do a poo where are you?

Child: In the toilet

Me: OK I walked into that one. What I mean is that you are a long way away from the plant aren't you?

Baby: AH POO!

Me: You've done a poo?

Baby: Uh-oh! POO!!!

Me: A poo or a wee?

Baby: POO!

Keith: She's done a wee

Baby: A POO!!!!!

Child: And the pig does a poo too

Me: And the poo has seeds in it that will land in new soil and ...


By this point I need a damn rest and I have missed out on most of the watermelon that the children have been shovelling into their faces between poo references. As a final insult, Miss Olive has spent the whole story throwing her gnawed watermelon rind at the side of my head to really emphasise the point that she is eating melon, and I am not.

Like I said, just wanted to write that down for future reference.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Does Enid Blyton Have a Place on My Children’s Bookshelf?

When I walk into the house most evenings I feel like I am playing catch-up: The rest of the family have spent the day sharing jokes, adventures and even after I’m updated by three screeching children, I’m usually no wiser about their day than before I arrived.

What has that got to do with Enid Blyton?

Well the other night I was left feeling slightly bemused by the fact that when dinner was finished, faces were cleaned and pyjamas were thrown on, there was a very enthusiastic consensus that the book of the evening was Five Go Off to Camp

I have no concept, none, how the words “Famous” and “Five” even came into their vocabulary, let alone how it had trumped the smorgasbord of modern children’s classics but, sure enough, out came a small battered hardback book and while I shovelled plates into the dishwasher sounds of hysterical laughter drifted in from the lounge.

Reading Enid Blyton

This is the point where I should set out my stall when it comes to Enid Blyton; I am a fan of hers, and I have been since I was knee high to a grasshopper.

I spent chunks of my childhood as an onlooker to The Famous Five; living through George’s eyes, caught up in the adventures of a strong minded girl who got to say all of the things I wanted to say, and do all the things I wanted to do.

I was aware that the language was old fashioned, and in some cases offensive, but it never got in the way of my love of the books or the stories they told because (like most children) I cared more about characters than grammar.

I suppose that is what the Enid Blyton Society is referring to when they challenge the need to modernise these stories as the result of “adults who underestimate the intelligence of children”. And maybe I would go further still and say that this drive to rewrite Blyton’s work shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how children engage with books, and with their own imagination.

Imagination is a fundamental tool that children use to understand and contextualise events that are not directly in front of them; ask them what they want to be when they grow up, or to imagine the earth when the dinosaurs ruled and a child falls back on their imagination. It’s an abstract concept, built up of experiences and cemented by the gradual accumulation of cultural markers. 

I agree with Edd Mccracken’s point that “Books are written in and are a record of a certain time and place. We read books to visit these fixed points. So, to change passages years later is to warp history. In Blyton’s case, it gives the impression that her time was free from racist language and stereotypes.” 

Taking this point further, reading Blyton’s books with their original language could be argued to be more helpful to children than reading a modernised version because they still contain the clear cultural markers that place them as an historical story. 

Reading books that differ from the modern sensibilities opens the door to conversations about privilege, feminism, poverty, identity, oppression, murder … I make my house sound like a bundle of fun, don’t I? But I think these conversations are important, and I trust my children to be able to process the journey our species has taken without it putting them into therapy. 

When it comes to The Famous Five stories in particular, I see past the dated references, to a world that gives a sense of normality to the sort of behaviour we want to foster; whatever criticisms you might level at those children, they are self-sufficient, responsible, assess risk, respectful of natural dangers and trust their support network to step in when the latest in a long line of local criminal masterminds threatens to kill them off. 

I think that Enid Blyton has earned her place on our bookshelf, and not just because, as the publisher Hodder says, “that the Famous Five books have come to appeal more to parents than to their children,”  but because they are a relevant today as they were in 1942. If they inspire another generation of children to want to pack up a bag and join their friends in adventure, some might say they are even more so. And if they encourage us to be honest about some of the less appealing aspects of our history, then I would say there were worth their weight in gold.
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