Children need the trashiness of modern culture

This is not drippy, hippy liberalism. The detritus and trivia of the modern world are often what makes it fun
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The Independent Online

Heaven knows, life is complicated enough without having to worry about other people's children. Offer advice sometimes, the humble fruits of a couple of decades of parenthood, and one can easily be accused of being a busybody. All the same, I must confess to feeling a twinge of concern, in a caring, Esther Rantzen sort of way, about the progress of a young chap called Sam Scruton.

Sam has only been around for about four years but already, as the son of the eminent philosopher, fox hunter and tobacco consultant Roger Scruton, he has led something of a public life. Soon after he was born, Professor Scruton told the press that "it goes without saying that Sam will not enjoy his childhood. That is not the point – childhood is not an end in itself, but a means to growing up".

At the time, most media commentators agreed that it would be a mistake to read too much into these rather stern comments. Men often react to the trauma of becoming a father by speaking and behaving in an uncharacteristically butch manner. A few weeks of gurgling and dandling would soon knock the starchiness out of the professor. In no time, he would be contributing gloopy Me and My Kid columns for the Sunday papers.

But it appears that the Scruton family life is still going to plan. The problem of TV, for example, has been resolved by an outright ban. "Sam understands that television has a social aspect," Professor Scruton announced recently. "Now we have an imaginary television, which is really a woodburner. First he talks about an invented programme, and then we use the remote control and I talk to him about another invented programme."

This is all rather worrying. The professor is my senior and superior in almost every respect, with the possible exception of riding horses, but as a daddy I fear he is still on the nursery slopes. Those of us who have climbed the peaks and plunged into the ravines of parenthood will know what a terrible mistake he is making.

It won't work. Even if the Scrutons gather around a real fire rather than a hideous metal woodburning contraption, the game of imaginary stories will soon pall. Sam will talk to friends at playgroup or school. He will start asking awkward questions about The Tweenies or Clifford the Big Red Dog. Professor Scruton's field is Kant and Spinoza, conservatism, animal rights, the awfulness of modern culture, not kiddy stories. He may have heard about the Teletubbies because Iris Murdoch used to enjoy them but, when it comes dreaming up adventures for Tinky-Winky, Dipsy and Po, he is going to be struggling.

More questions will follow. In a few years, Sam's friends will be talking about the latest TV reality show, Neighbours, who the leading contenders for the Rear of the Year award might be. Professor Scruton may rather like the idea that, like him, his son is out of step with the common herd, but a childhood without access to modern culture in all its trashiness is a reduced one.

TV offers choice. Watching even the most dismal of programmes is not an entirely harmful experience for children. Soon they will come to terms with the concepts of boredom, fame, irony, greed, vulgarity. They will learn to switch off, to differentiate between the interesting and the dull. Just as young readers of formulaic, ill-written stories from a paperback series eventually graduate to more subtle and demanding fiction, so, in the right circumstances, all but the dimmest telly-addicts will become discriminating.

This is not drippy, hippy liberalism but common sense. The trivia and detritus of the modern world are often what makes it surprising and fun. Staring into the flames of a woodburning stove while thinking up improving stories offers a partial, insular childhood, a doomed attempt to keep at bay the interesting mess outside the front door. Far from protecting a child from the seductions offered by modern technology, it is merely making them more alluring.

Many conscientious parents have taken this route. They have banned TVs, then allowed them only for strictly supervised videos, then kept the set in a box or cupboard to be produced on special occasions. In the end, it is a battle that only the most drearily fundamentalist of adults, with unhealthily co-operative children, will win.

Childhood is a process of learning – children educate their fathers and mothers. Together they discover that, while some rules are important, others are plain silly, that there are merits in flexibility and open-eyed curiosity towards the outside world.

I hope that, in future bulletins from the Scruton household, we shall be hearing how the professor is being introduced by family life into experiences once denied to him – supporting a football team, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, jumping up and down and waving his arms at a rock concert. The means to growing up can sometimes be shared by young and old.

terblacker@aol.com

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