Valuing Children and Kindness: Learning from Betty

Valuing Children and Kindness.

I’m sitting up in bed as I am not very well. I have, annoyingly, got a horrible virus I can’t seem to shake off. I got up and got dressed yesterday and I think I should have stayed in bed – so today I intend to try to properly sleep this rotten thing off.

After I have written this.

As a children’s writer I fully support S.F. Said’s campaign about increasing the coverage of children’s books in our newspapers. It is astonishing that children’s books are ignored so much – and every children’s writer cheered when Frances Hardinge won the Costa prize for her novel ‘The Lie Tree’,–Costa-Book-of-the-Year-2015/16491266

not just because it is an excellent book and deserved all the praise it got, but because it was showing the wider literary public that children’s books can be amazing and just as brilliant – if not more so – than any written for adults. I often have more confidence that I am going to read and enjoy an excellent story when I pick up a children’s book than an adult book. There are some AMAZING books out there – and I encourage you to browse the children’s shelves in your library or bookshop and see what I am talking about.

I think this lack of respect for books written for children is not just about underestimating the skill of the adults who write for them, but also about undervaluing children themselves.

Look at us. We are crushing our children from the moment they start school with tests. I was recently with some Foundation Year (Reception) children. I dressed as a fairy and read out my and Rosalind Beardshaw’s book ‘The Fairiest Fairy’ to them, reading my words and showing them Rosalind Beardshaw’s wonderful illustrations

Now, Betty is the main character in my book, and she is a little kind hearted fairy who can’t do any of the tasks she is learning at Fairy School – she can’t wake the flowers, sprinkle dew drops or paint rainbows very well – and she feels very upset about it. LUCKILY (spoiler alert!) Betty IS good at being kind, and the little rabbit, blackbird and butterfly she helps out of various predicaments, each, in turn, then help her to do the tasks she needs to do and which she can’t do on her own. One reception class teacher at a school I went to commented on how much he liked the book and felt it was needed, because he was coming across more and more four year olds who were describing themselves as ‘rubbish’ when they couldn’t do something.

After I had read out the book this time and we had all sprinkled dewdrops, painted rainbows and woken flowers, after we had cheered when Betty was declared ‘the Fairiest Fairy’ because she was kind, after we had sung ‘The Fairies on the bus scatter dewdrops like this…etc’ I asked the children – ‘so – what can you tell me about Betty?’ A bright little girl eagerly put up her hand and said very emphatically: ‘She isn’t very good at doing things and she needs to learn to get better at them.’


Of course I didn’t say that. I nodded encouragingly and told her ‘Well, you’re definitely right that she isn’t very good at things, so that is true -(the little girl nodded in agreement) but I think there’s something even MORE important about her…Can anyone tell me?’ I then got a lovely little boy putting up his hand who said ‘I think Betty is good at EVERYTHING’ so I said ‘yes, you’re right – when her friends help her she does do all the tasks really well, but is Betty good at waking the flowers, sprinkling dew drops or painting rainbows on her own?’…We finally, as a class, managed to get a consensus that Betty was actually NOT very good at the tasks but that wasn’t the important thing – the most important thing, and the reason why she was voted ‘The Fairest Fairy’ was that she was kind and knew how to be a friend.

Those children are so little. Their job in foundation year should be to have fun, to learn how to be friends, to enjoy stories and playing and making things – and most of all to be loved and to love. The teachers and teaching assistants are trying so hard to communicate this – but they are being given so many targets and tests to put the children through – and some, like that eager little girl, are swallowing the story in our culture that the most important thing about education is passing tests and ‘getting better’ at things – so much so that even though she had just listened very carefully to a book which told her the exact opposite – she still thought the main thing about Betty was that she was failing.

Kindness isn’t exactly being communicated as the most important quality.

OK – so now let’s go the end of schooling. My 17 year old son is currently in Year 13 – and as his mum I do want him to pass his ‘A’ levels and get the highest grades he can so that he can go to the university he wants to go to. I am not against people working hard and using their talents – in fact, I think it is something we have a duty to do. I am very proud of his academic gifts and his love of reading and study – but most of all that he is kind and thoughtful and funny and loving. I would do anything to keep him safe. Like any mum. If we had lived in a war zone when he was 13 or 14 I would have sent him away to a safe country. i would have told him ‘ stay safe, work hard for these kind people who will take you in, and when you can, come back to us. Come home. But only when it is safe.’

And now today I read this.

And I can’t bear it. My son will be 18 soon. We are looking forward to it. We will be going as a family to hear some Jazz, because he loves Music. I hope that this year he will be off to University. I worry about him, and I will miss him terribly, but I have hope that he will have a wonderful time. He will still be my child.

Not like those poor children. They came here out of unimaginable terrors. Nobody can argue that, for example, Afghanistan is a safe place for a young boy to grow up in. So they come here, and they go to school in their adopted country, and they make friends, and they feel relief at being safe. And then a 17 year old like my son turns 18 – and they get sent back.

How is that kind? How is that loving? How is that really loving other people’s children, rewarding their faith in us – if we say – OK – you can be safe for a few years and then we will knowingly send you back to danger, to fear and to possible death? Because, you are not our child.

And it is so stupid too. In ‘The Fairiest Fairy’ Betty isn’t kind to Rabbit, Bird and Butterfly for ulterior motives – but her kindness to them inspires gratitude – they want to help her when she needs help, and they do. In years to come we will need good relationships with the new governments of these war-torn countries – if we have been kind to their children, just imagine the goodwill we will store up. I would do anything for someone who is kind to my children. The children themselves, if we allow them, having educated them, to give back to the country which gave them refuge, can, with their cultural knowledge and language skills, help us forge positive relationships with other nations. It makes sense. It makes sense to value children – our own and others. It makes sense to be kind.

6 thoughts on “Valuing Children and Kindness: Learning from Betty

  1. Lucy Mills February 10, 2016 at 4:33 pm Reply

    Kindness is the most attractive quality in the world, to me.

  2. bridgeanneartandwriting February 10, 2016 at 8:11 pm Reply

    Yes – I totally agree.

  3. […] Children (shock, horror!) have their own personalities and their own tastes, meaning that by placing gravity on the books they read – brilliant, innovative, formative books – you are acknowledging their individuality and their right to a critical spirit. Contrariwise, if all – bar 3% – of the space dedicated to reviews in newspapers focuses on ‘adult’ books, not to mention entire publications whose sole mission statement is to review books yet which include no children’s books at all, what is it other than dehumanising? ‘Just’ a children’s book. For ‘just’ a child. As if either of those things is unforgivably, irrecoverably wanting. These things add up and affect the way our children relate to themselves and to their peers. […]

  4. peatyjen February 13, 2016 at 2:26 pm Reply

    I’m sorry you are not well, but I love your blog and this one really resonated with me. I tutor 1st and 2nd year undergraduates and am saddened when I come across those who are so fixated with giving the ‘right’ answers that they feel constrained to express themselves. With time my tutorials become times of fun and laughter as well as education and, eventually, those most reticent of students feel more ready and able to express themselves and not worry about being right or wrong. It is at this time that I see the most growth in them. Thanks for highlighting some of these issues.

  5. Julia Lee February 24, 2016 at 6:11 pm Reply

    I’m late to this but it’s such a perceptive post. The pressure of constant – and early – testing in school is a scandal (for teachers and children both). As you show, children get the messages very soon and begin only to value what can easily be tested & measured. It’s so sad and as you say it’s just one aspect of not valuing children and respecting childhood for a wonderful stage in itself. Parents unconsciously absorb this message too until it can be hard for some of them to articulate any contrasting views – I see so much on-line checking of Ofsted reports in choosing settings at all ages, as if they don’t have any skills in judging for themselves.

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