Give children some credit

I had to take our car to have some minor thing done at the garage, and as it worked out I needed to take my 9-year-old and 6-year-old with me. I warned them before we left that we’d have to wait at the garage for a bit while the work was done, so whatever they’d been planning to bring to do in the car, they should make sure they had enough entertainment to last a bit longer.

When we arrived, the woman at the desk took the car keys and offered us a seat in the waiting area, which had comfy chairs, a table, and a load of car sales bumph. There was also a TV, switched off, and the woman quietly let me know that we were welcome to switch it on if we wanted to.

The sales display included a bunch of tiny cars, painted to show customers all the available colours, and the children got very interested in these. They spent about twenty minutes using them as the starting point for debates: if you had a car which of these colours would it be? What about if you had to choose one as a nail varnish? Shoes? And so on. Then the older child settled down to reading the book she had brought with her, and the younger one started talking to me about what she was going to do. She had a notebook and pencil, and was asking me for suggestions of things she might want to do while we waited.

Just then, a car salesman spotted us in the waiting area and strode over. “Do they watch TV?”, he asked me, loudly. I mean yes, they do, there are programmes they like and we don’t have any particular restrictions on watching, so I said yes. “Girls,” he announced, “there’s the remote. You can watch anything. Anything you like.” They scrambled to grab the remote, and he laughed and said something about how much all kids love TV (though personally I’d assumed it was one of the Laws of Siblings that I’m gradually working out, being an only child myself: you must be the first to lay a hand on any kind of device that controls anything, from lightswitch to pedestrian crossing button to computer keyboard). He strolled away, satisfied with his role as benevolent deity of electronic entertainment, leaving the children to scroll through the channels.

Now, it was 10am on a Thursday. So what they found on TV was five variations on “buy an antique and try to sell it for a profit”, five more basically the same but with houses, some obscure soap operas, any number of cookery programmes, a dozen adult channels thankfully not broadcasting at that time of day, and two children’s channels. One of them was showing a programme for toddlers, and the other an episode of a series they have never seen before. They settled for the latter – what else, really? – and we sat for twenty minutes watching characters we didn’t know doing things we didn’t care about; because once a TV screen is on it’s hard not to watch it, and even I ended up putting down my book to focus on watching some strangers in a situation I couldn’t decipher.

In case you’re wondering, here are some of the ideas I didn’t get a chance to suggest for what to do with a notebook and pencil. Draw a picture. Write a story. Start a picture and hand it to me to finish. Start a story and hand it to me to finish. Play boxes. Play sprouts. Play Hangman. Play picture consequences. Play story consequences. Take it in turns to draw squiggles and turn each other’s squiggles into pictures. Draw a dot-to-dot picture for someone else to join up. Make up a secret code and write a message. Interview your sister and write down the answers. Make a flick book.

I don’t mind screens, and I don’t do a lot to limit how much TV my children watch; they watch films and programmes they like, when they’re in the mood to watch, and do lots of other interesting things the rest of the time. What I mind is the assumption that two children in a room with a TV in it are automatically longing to switch it on and watch it, even when there’s nothing on that interests them, and even when they’re already entertained by doing something else. When we assume that Children are basically lazy and incapable, and treat them as if that were true, we take away their opportunities to prove us wrong. When we extend them some credit, they show us what they’re capable of.