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Article
21 December 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Teaching adults about 'scary Santa'
How did patronising advice for parents about the perils of Christmas end up on a government-funded website?

by Munira Mirza

Like everyone else, I dread the countless cheerful Christmas TV specials in which celebrities are invited to remember nostalgically their favourite Christmas songs, recipes and childhood experiences. But even more I dread the countless health warnings attached to Christmas by so-called 'experts', warning of the perils and troubles of the festive period. It is bad enough that most of these are related to adult pleasures - booze, food and sex; but a recent incident shows that even children are not immune from the unhappy tidings of official advice.

TeacherNet (www.teachernet.gov.uk), a website funded by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), has frustrated parents' groups by displaying advice about how adults should look after their kids during the Christmas period. The authors suggested that serious planning is required by parents and teachers who may not be sufficiently mindful of their little charges' fears. For example, 'For very young children, Father Christmas can be terrifying…and if you are planning a visit from Santa, you'll need to make sure that fearful children are near an exit.'

Pantomimes can also be pretty scary, apparently, and competitive games at the school Christmas party might upset some children who do not win anything. The site says: 'Sometimes parties and organised games just reinforce differences and inequalities. The last thing you want is for children to get anxious or upset because they feel they have underperformed, or not been successful.' To avoid upset losers throwing tantrums, or even worse, losing their self-esteem, guardians are encouraged to 'make sure that all children are given an opportunity to succeed where possible'. If the children are going to have a happy Christmas, all shall have prizes.

The aim of the advice is to protect children from what appear to be the unpredictable hazards of Christmas. Anyone who has children knows that they can be easily scared and that one of the things they must learn is to overcome their fears. However, this advice reflects much of contemporary thinking in that it inflates childhood fears and anxieties, and tells adults to protect children from their emotions rather than to confront them.

Yes, it is true that some children find the idea of Father Christmas worrying ('why is that large man with a big sack coming down our chimney, Mummy?'). But instead of letting parents and teachers get on with the job of reassuring children, this advice creates more anxiety in the adult mind about how to respond. Most worryingly, the authors seems unaware of their patronising tone, as if the majority of adults are ignorant about how their children might behave or feel in unusual situations and need professional guidance.

Themes of fear and self-esteem are at the core of education today
Following complaints, the DfES has withdrawn the advice from the site, claiming that it was never government policy and did not comply with its own views. But how on Earth did it get on the site in the first place? Why did nobody recognise the absurdity of such suggestions?

We may be tired of hearing the usual rant about 'political correctness gone mad', especially during the Christmas season when the public is warned not to eat, drink or fornicate too much. But this little episode gives us a chilling glimpse into how quickly once-ludicrous 'PC comments' can become mainstream. That nobody questioned the advice internally within the website - and it took complaints from outside parent groups to get it removed - suggests that sensible thinking, especially in high places, is rapidly diminishing.

Of course, the call to protect vulnerable children at Christmas time did not come out of nowhere. The themes of fear, self-esteem and emotional intelligence are at the core of the education establishment today. TeacherNet has a plethora of resources designed to help educational staff address issues of child safety, mental health issues and anti-bullying, to name a few. Where once these issues relating to the vulnerability of children were marginal to the role of education, and even to child-rearing itself, they are now pushed to the fore.

We should not be surprised that the 'terror of Christmas' has reared its ugly head, considering the framework within which adults think about kids today.

Read on:

Who killed Christmas?, by Josie Appleton

Eat, drink and be merry, by Stephen Bremner

Don't mention the C-word, by Nancy McDermott

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