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A Poorly-Socialized Child:

“Poorly-socialized” is one of the euphemisms that has become a somewhat standardized usage to describe what is the matter with the kind of kids that we used to call juvenile delinquents when I was young. This term became popular during a comparatively recent round of “political correctness”. It will undoubtedly be replaced in time with something even more “value-neutral”, since political correctness always works like that. I doubt that the term is exclusive to this side of the pond.

Of course my own use of it is ironic; the way kids were permitted to behave when I was growing up was so different from the level of tolerance of children’s behavior by the time the term was coined that the whole concept is frankly laughable. The kids I grew up with in the ’50s were scarcely models of good behavior — until you compare them to the kids 30-40 years later. I probably ought not to be including myself in that blanket statement, however. For I was a “poorly socialized” child.

There is least one anecdote on the subject which is marginally amusing. This one dates from kindergarten. And it did certainly showcase the fact that at the age of five, no, I was not a particularly well-socialized child.

I probably made a smoother transition to suddenly being in school for half the day than some of the other kids in the class, but there were certainly glitches. In the first place, I wasn’t used to being around other kids. Nursery schools cost money, so I was never sent to one. I also wasn’t used to minding anyone but family members, and I wasn’t particularly impressed by random grown ups. The “authority” of teachers took a while to sink in.

So, one day at the end of recess when it was time for us to all go indoors, and I wasn’t ready to, I had no compunction about informing my bemused (and probably amused — as well as offended) teacher, when she took me by the wrist to lead me back into the classroom: “Don’t touch me. I’m a nervous child. I have a working mother. Leave me alone.”

For the record; I wasn’t the least bit nervous. I never had the imagination for it. (Physically timid, yes. Nervous, not on your tintype.) But I was a fine little parrot, and my mother had convinced herself that I “must” be nervous, because she was “nervous” and she worked outside the home! (She had no doubt read too many magazine articles.) She was also all too evidently under the impression that this “nervousness” was somehow a mark of distinction.

But well-socialized? Er, no, not particularly. At least not by the lights of 1951.

And, for that matter, the overall tolerance for “individuality” in the early ’50s was suffocatingly narrow, too. The inclusionary doctrines of Sesame Street which a lot of people identify with an American childhood were aimed at an entirely different generation from mine. In my day, America prided itself on being the “melting pot” and heaven help you if you didn’t melt down satisfactorily. Nor does any of this take into account the actual social dynamics of a playground.

In one of Diana Wynne Jones’s novels (‘Witch Week’: it’s one of the “Chrestomancy Quartet” which are the set of books that are most frequently pushed at Potter fans — ‘Witch Week’ in particular, since it is a school story) one of the young characters gives us an unblinkingly honest and unsentimental description of the politics of the playground. It is quite brutal, and it is absolutely true. In every class there will be one or two kids that all the others know that it is “safe” to attack. Either physically with covert pokes and jabs, or verbally by whatever means they can devise. During some periods, such as during the ’80s and ’90s when the value of the individual was at its peak, this gets stomped on as much as possible because everyone is giving some credence to the view that “everyone is valuable”, and no one is “better”.

In my day, however, the value of the individual was vastly exceeded by the value of the collective, and if you were not a part of the collective it was just too bad for you. Except in the case of outright physical attacks the teachers didn’t even try to do squat about the pecking order. And I know this from experience, because I was one of those children who were on the “attack here” list. And retaliation from my end got me sent to the principal’s office an average of 2–3 times a year.

I once managed to overhear the “authorities’” justification for this on one memorable occasion. The teachers, in their serene wisdom, considered that being forced to “take it” as the allotted target for my entire classroom was “good” for me because, after all, I was an only child.

So, of course I must be spoiled.

Well, I was certainly a tedious little show off, and a bit more assertive than was considered appropriate for female children in the 1950s. Ma also enjoyed sewing as a hobby and made me far too many dresses — which I took for granted. Even Gran, who had a lot of input on my upbringing had made her mistakes, and had been following a paradigm some 30 years out of date on the details, to boot, so I could be a horrible little prig at the drop of a hat. And I was far too accustomed to the company of adults to be in awe of them, or to have a lot of regard for their opinions. But I’m not convinced that I was actually spoiled. And if I was, I’m damned if I can see how being tossed to the mob to be deliberately picked at by my — laughingly referred to as — “peers” was going to magically correct this.

This kind of “irrational symmetry” must have been characteristic of the reasoning typically employed by my mother’s generation. I certainly got enough of it from her. But I do not know whether the same can be said about her generation in the UK and elsewhere.

Certainly if my parents had behaved themselves and fulfilled the full terms of their “social contract” and provided me with a couple of siblings (an only hypothetical possibility. There was an incompatible Rh factor in the equation. I was the only living child they were ever likely to produce) I would necessarily have had to negotiate the terms of my existence with those siblings. And those siblings would have undoubtedly given me a hard time, periodically. But it would have been my own siblings’ right to give me a hard time, and I would have returned the compliment. Those little bastards in my classroom did not have that right; and my reciprocations landed me in the principal’s office.

While, so far as I could ever see, they got off scott free.

(Funny thing how in those days no one seems to have ever put 2+2 together and asked themselves the question of; if smacking someone was my standard answer to being deliberately provoked, maybe that was because that is the example I was being given at home, eh? But of course in those days smacking kids was considered the correct form of parental dicipline.)

And I still say that the teachers who knowingly facilitated this situation had a very odd interpretation of their duty to keep order. A periodic whine of “Now children, don’t tease.” isn’t even proper lip-service to the concept of classroom or playground discipline. That scum wasn’t teasing me. They were attacking me. Even a 7-year-old can tell the difference for ghod’s sake.

Of course the main reason that I could tell the difference is that by the purest chance I was fortunate enough to have landed in the same classroom as a child who was capable of “teasing”.

I never got any real impression that this kid actually liked me. And he certainly never sought out my company. But in retrospect, his verbal tweaks and taunts felt like something more on the order of a potentially-shared joke that I had simply never initiated and didn’t think was all that funny, rather than an attempt to humiliate or wound.

Michael C., wherever you are; I owe you an inestimable debt of gratitude.

All I’ll say about it now is that I spent most of the years between the ages of around 7 and about 18 fantasizing about pulling a Columbine. On an almost daily basis. Luckily, firearms were a lot less widely available in the suburbs back in those days.

And the behavior which was tolerated from kids had a lot less latitude.

Of course the real lesson that I actually learned from all of this was that I could not ever trust other people to uphold their end of this oh-so-vaunted “social contract” that everyone was so determined to wave in my face, and pretend that I had signed.

If I was told (usually by some clueless adult who wasn’t even on the same page) that “if you do A, then other people will do B!” and I, somewhat warily, did A, those brats would all but hang up a banner declaring “We don’t have to do B — and you can’t make us! Nyhaaa!” After you’ve had your nose rubbed in that a few times you tend to question the validity of this so called social “contract” altogether

So, no. I am not particularly “well-sociaized” even as an adult. But I can’t honestly see how this is somehow supposed to be my fault.