GOOD AND BAD were easily spotted in my day. Nelly Olsen, arch super-villain from Little House on the Prairie was a bad piece of work. A yellow ringleted, smirking package of spite and venom. Not like good girl Laura Ingalls, all jolly plaits, muddy boots and kindness.
In Francesca Simon’s 90s Horrid Henry, Henry was a disruptive, chaotic, sociopathic, hoot of a boy with a rules-are-rules brother, Perfect Peter, who enjoyed winning the best boy praise from his parents. Both were capable of being quite awful, but in their world, justice would prevail and they would both get their just rewards.
In the Harry Potter books, good and bad were uncomplicated. Bad was dreadful, old-school, blonde Draco Malfoy, or the horrible and abusive Dursleys. The good were the talented or their faithful helpers.
Wherever childhoods falls in time and space easy themes of good and bad will imprint on impressionable young minds. But today the simplicity of good and bad even for children seem too binary for us. Children are now expected to have a more nuanced understanding. Now there’s the good, the bad and the not-your-fault.
What’s good today? Good qualities for children include empathy, positivity and confidence. A million posters in our schools present the now universal message that believing in yourself is good. Sharing your feelings is also excellent, as is teamwork and praise.
What’s bad? Limitations and self-doubt are not good. Keeping your feelings inside is really bad. Defensiveness is bad. These are problems for which a vast army of public sector workers are waiting to fix and get you emotionally unblocked. Not being understanding of others’ needs is bad.
And the third category, ‘it’s not your fault’? Children who do what may be construed as ‘bad’ by other children, hitting, biting, destroying property can now have their crimes mitigated by an increasing number of explanations. Clinical explanations, sensory needs, terrible background, ability (or lack, thereof) all offer a smorgasbord of reasons why the behaviour can’t be bad, and crucially is not your responsibility to change. Of course, some children have significant problems (such as a severe and life-altering autistic learning difficulty as opposed to the Bill Gates version) and these children need help. But the criteria are becoming wider.
Terrible background now has a scoring measure – the Adverse Childhood Experiences framework will give you a score – and a low score is evidence of your rotten roots, and your likelihood of future success. It sounds scientific and is scientific if by scientific one means social science and arbitrary. But what all other factors mean for children is that where once a child who hit them is reasonably described by them as ‘bad’ may find that the hitter is not bad, not good, but in the non-binary moralrelativity set.
A morally non-binary world would provide a challenge for the likes of Horrid Henry, Nelly Olsen and even Harry Potter. Henry, a child of the 90s who would be marched off to Mental Health for diagnosis and likely medication. Making mischief would be difficult with a classroom assistant pinned to his side and he would definitely be assigned someone to talk to about his feelings. Professionals would pop up routinely to peer at him and take notes on his behaviour. Blame would not be attributed to young Henry and he would have to stand around on a Friday afternoon in misery as his Headteacher gave him an award for not hitting that week. Or he’d get sent off to the sensory tent. Scarring for Henry when his teachers and classmates start talking to him like he’s a not very bright. Maybe that will learn him. Being bad, he would learn, is not so easy in 2021.
Nelly Olsen would be having a blast in 2021. Mrs Olsen would definitely have her seen for anxiety. Once the devious Nelly got wind of the news that anxiety means time out of class with praise being heaped upon her ability to be resilient, then there is no doubt that Nelly would have sat in her one-to-one session, smirking to the camera, eye rolling as some poor schmuck tried to sort out her deadly feelings. There is no doubt also that Nelly would be dyslexic, as there is no way that Nelly would have stayed in and learnt her spelling when she could be doing whatever Nelly thought of as fun, like pulling insects apart or leaving people out of parties.
And Harry Potter would have definitely had some attachment issues highlighted by his adoptive parents. He’s weird and doesn’t seem to feel secure, they would say, because of his early trauma. See – he likes a confined space. Had Hagrid not carted him off to private school, his adopters would have an attachment label stuck on him and he’d find out what being truly special can mean in the real world.
As for Draco with no trauma and a love of exclusion? No, Draco is just nasty. We are still allowed to think he’s just a baddie. Thanks goodness and long live the panto villain.
Children need goodies and baddies. If someone is hitting them, annoying them or putting them off their work all day, they should be allowed to make that judgement. Children are still developing their ability to process and make sense of the world, and are not mini-adults. We all need to remember that children like binary concepts and that binary is not a bad word.