Saturday, 6 March 2010

Childhood Mythologies

All families create elaborate myths around their members. Johnny is the "practical one", Mary is "a dreamer". Uncle Joe is the "artistic one" and so on. There is little harm in this sort of thing where adults are concerned, but with children it is another thing entirely. Having such labels attached to children can have the effect of making them behave in certain ways; either to confirm or vehemently to reject their chosen mythic role. In other words, because Susan is seen as being artistic, her parents might buy her lots of art materials and so on. Susan might then feel that this is in a sense her destiny and fall in with the family view of seeing herself as "artistic". With the best will in the world, the family is shaping her in a certain way. She might rebel and refuse to have anything to do with her assigned role. She might do this by throwing herself into mechanics or something, thus showing that she is her own person. This too has been caused by the family expectations. What has all this to do with home education?

For most children, there is the opportunity to develop an alternative mythic role. This happens at school. There, the child whose parents think she is "the quiet and good natured one" can instead be "the troublemaker" or "the awkward one". This can be very satisfying to a child anxious to overthrow her familial mythic role and it explains why many parents become puzzled and unhappy when they learn how their children are viewed at school. They aren't like that at home! It must be the bad influence of the school. It is nothing of the sort; it is a human being asserting his or her right to be somebody defined by themselves rather than their relatives!
A hazard with home education is that children are often deprived of this opportunity to develop other mythic roles. The child who is seen as "artistic" will be encouraged in that and perhaps allowed to abandon science in favour of art. The "practical" one might end up tinkering around with machinery, with little attempt being made to introduce her to Keats or Shakespeare. Thus the family of a home educated child can without really being aware of it, mould the child and close off certain options.

At school, the case is quite different. the National Curriculum takes no account at all of the mythic role which an adolescent might have adopted! He may see himself as a latter day Van Gogh, but he will still be required to study mathematics. This is a good thing. Although as many home educators have remarked, children can be put off subjects by being made to study them, it also happens frequently that a child with no interest in poetry discovers through being compelled to study it, that he actually likes poetry. Or biology or many other things which left to his own devices he would have avoided.

None of this is an argument against home education, simply that I am musing upon a theme which I have seldom seen mentioned by home educating parents. It certainly happened in my own family. Simone is "the academic one", her sister Morgan was always "the practical one". To what extent I have maintained the myth of my younger daughter and how far she would have created her own myth if given the opportunity afforded by school is an interesting point!


  1. "The child who is seen as "artistic" will be encouraged in that and perhaps allowed to abandon science in favour of art."

    Isn't this where informal learning comes into its own? My 'artistic' child (though she didn't find this direction until she was 15 so I'm not sure where your myth idea fits with her) has learnt science through TV, conversations, experiments when younger, through her art (materials, construction, etc), museum visits, etc, etc. You don't have to 'study' a subject in order to build up a general knowledge of the subject - certainly enough of an idea to trigger further interests if the child has them.

    The main concern for us is that they develop the study skills and love of learning that will allow them to change direction at any point in the future. My sister in law had a total change in direction well after finishing school. She did really well at science and maths at school but as an adult gained an honours degree in English and is working on her PhD (despite failing O level English at 16). Currently my daughter uses her study skills to research artists, art concepts and art materials and techniques, but the same skills could just as easily be turned to maths, science, health and social care, English literature, etc, etc,

  2. George Stewart6 March 2010 at 02:38

    Simon says-

    "He may see himself as a latter day Van Gogh, but he will still be required to study mathematics."

    You are being overly generous with your use of the word "study."

    If government ran schools actually had pupils "studying" mathematics the GCSE test scores would reflect that, even after the exams having been dumbed down. All the home educators I know have tracked their children to take IGCSE exams and have done well.

    I will not quibble with your comment in the general sense but I will argue that what you state applies in home education, government schools and everything in between.

    School placement selection, that the country has just gone through, will now place tens of thousands of pupils in predefined tracks all dependent on the type of school they have been admitted to.

    Hmm, I am start to think that Simon the Heretic may be a closted autonomous educator. This post would indicate that, as you seem to be arguing for it. ;)

  3. "For most children, there is the opportunity to develop an alternative mythic role. This happens at school."

    Yup. In school they get the alternative set of mythic roles: She's the thick one in special classes, he's the bully, she's the VICTIM ('got it written all over her forehead' - if I could have a quid for every time I heard that one in the staffroom, I'd be a rich woman), he's the one with the mad mum, she's the one whose Dad is the transvestite, she's the scruffy (gipo/pikey) one, he's the Goth, Don't cross her, she's the one with the brother who's the drug dealer, He's the poof, she's the slag etc etc etc

    Yes, I remember those alternative mythological roles so well from my teaching days.

    Much better for my kids to be out of school where they were able to develop their own personalities in peace.

    I did 'push' them (exposure?) to experience all kinds of areas of study, though. One surprised me by having a facility for science (did all 3 separate sciences for IGCE). I'd never have predicted that. If he'd been going to school he'd have been so busy trying to be cool, he'd never have picked 'geeky', 'nerdy' subjects like those. :-)

    Mrs Anon

  4. Please forgive me Simon if this is a sensitive question, I always thought you had one daughter- Simone. Is Morgan a much older sister, or have I missed some information along the way?

    Lisa xx

  5. No it's not a sensitive question at all Lisa. Morgan is four years older than Simone. It was largely as result of her experiences with school that I decided not to send Simone when she was born. Although I have always been very keen on the idea of home education, my wife had more reservations. We agreed to give the system a go with our first child. It was catastrophic from an educational view, although I have to say that the child herself loved it. We took her out of school one day a week when we were living in Haringey, in an attempt to repair the damage caused by the lack of education. However, by that time she had become institutionalised and actually disliked being removed from her friends for one day a week. It was aas a result of all this that we realised our mistake and did not send the next child at all.

  6. I thought you said that your older daughter was raised in a different household, or am I mixing you up with someone else? Sorry if this is a sensitive question - obviously you don't have to answer.

  7. It's not at all a sensitive question AnonySue. No, both daughters were raised together. The elder is not here any more, because she lives and works at a stable.

  8. Thanks for clearing that up Simon, I was a little confused.
    It must be an interesting perspective to have gone through the school system with one daughter, and not with the other.
    I was wondering how the girls feel about their different educational approach? I would be quite fascinated if you ever were able to write a post about this and how it worked out for you all.

    Lisa xx