What do you want to be when you grow up?
Thoughts on Childhood and Inequality
Laureate na nÓg/Children’s Literature Laureate
Children, I find, are equal to practically anything, but not generally to each other, and especially not to adults. I would say that the equality gap between children and adults is so ingrained in the culture that most adults are hardly aware of it. Even adults who have children’s interests at heart can perpetrate and perpetuate this insidious culture of inequality, by which I mean an attitude that children are essentially inadequate or unachieved adults, and that the purpose of childhood is to grow out of it.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that one purpose of childhood is not to grow up. Of course children have that ambition, but the inexplicit assumption in that apparently kindly and interested enquiry – what do you want to be when you grow up? – is that childhood is all about becoming adult. Becoming adult is a driving force in childhood, certainly, but if children are constantly under pressure not to be who they are, to become what they are not yet, then not only is their experience of childhood compromised, but they are constantly if unconsciously on edge, because they are eternally in receipt of the message that their state, childhood, is defined by inadequacy and is at best transient – but whereas transience is a feature of childhood, it is hardly helpful if it is thought of as a defining feature.
The defining feature of childhood I would identify as engagement with the life of the imagination. The ability to believe the impossible is childhood’s great gift. As Billly Collins puts it in his elegiac poem, ‘On Turning Ten’, which is about the end of childhood,
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince. …
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
If maturity is marked by the dismaying realisation that if you cut me, I do not shine, I bleed, still, the ability to believe in the impossible is the essential fuel of the imagination, not a fuel lightly to be drained away, even in the interests of education, sound empirical principles and general enlightenment. It would be folly
to wish our children to reach adulthood still labouring under such illusions as ‘If you cut me, I could shine’, but at the same time, childhood’s willingness to suspend disbelief in the service of the imaginative interior life is a state we might all aspire to for ourselves, rather than one we wish to shake from the feet of our children, like so much dust.
For it is the ability to imagine that drives almost everything of value that human beings do: it drives invention, creativity, problem-solving, empathy, the making of art, falling in love, projecting and forecasting, planning and modelling, providing for the future … And this, ladies and gentlemen, this is why we teach our children how to read.
Yes, of course, there are other reasons. They need to read in order to function in society as workers, as citizens, as consumers, and that kind of functional literacy can, up to a point, be taught. But beyond that point of adequacy, literacy cannot be taught by teachers; it can only be acquired by learners. Learners only acquire real fluency as readers (and as thinkers) by constant reading. And they will only read constantly and persistently if they are offered books that ignite their interest and fire their imaginations. That is why children need access to a wide range of thrilling, enjoyable and engaging books. And that, in turn, is why all schools need, if not a fully stocked and professionally staffed library – though that would be ideal – at least a wide range of thoughtfully chosen, quality children’s books.
Until recently, that was what they got. There was good funding for books for primary schools, the books that turn children into fluent readers by stealth. But then the last government, for reasons best known to itself, diverted the funds for buying books for schools away from the public libraries, which were by and large doing an excellent job, and claimed that instead the money was being directed into schools, through the capitation grant. The result is that some schools have allocated no money at all for library books. And even where the principal does earmark funds for books, it is now being spent in retail outlets, whose stock is often limited, by teachers who do not have the bulk buying power of libraries or access to well-stocked, professionally run library suppliers. This is not only a case of neglect of our children and their imaginations; it is also a wasteful use of public funds.
Sure, there are well-stocked children’s sections in the public libraries, but lots of families never cross the threshold of the library. It is only in school that the most excluded children get access to books, and that access is slowly being narrowed and eroded, as school libraries run down. This runs completely counter to the government’s stated and, I have no doubt, real commitment to literacy, as embodied in the new Policy on Literacy and Numeracy, and it is disproportionately affecting those children who are already most excluded. They suffer all the ills of economic inequality, and now they are being excluded also from equality of the imagination.
We all know that the Department of Education is already under enormous pressure, and I am aware that library books may look like a luxury by comparison with issues like class size, school transport, special needs assistants and so on, but it is not necessarily a question of looking for fresh funds, merely the more careful spending of funds already theoretically allocated to books for school libraries; moreover, a literacy programme that does not include a plan for well-stocked school and classroom libraries simply cannot succeed in making children literate.
Children who are not literate can give only stunted answers to that eternal adult question, What do you want to be when you grow up? And so I call on the Minister for Education to restore the formal link between public librarians and primary schools, in the interests both of literacy and of equality.