Children are the new eco-spies....
Our children will be spying and reporting on our 'green' habits...
The flipside of the devaluation of adult authority is the sacralisation of the status of the child. Increasingly, children are assigned the role of educators, charged with enlightening their misguided, greedy, stupid elders. This has led to a process of socialisation-in-reverse. The project of using ‘pester power’ to socialise adults is most systematically pursued in the realm of environmentalism. Many environmental educators self-consciously advocate pester power as a useful way of changing the behaviour of adults.
David Uzell, a professor of environmental psychology at the University of Surrey in England, recalls attending an educational conference a few years ago where ‘everyone was absolutely convinced’ that pester power was ‘the answer’ to the problem of climate change (4). Uzell’s own research has focused on what he calls ‘intergenerational learning through the transference of personal experience typically from the child to the parent/other adults/home’ (5). This casual reference to the transference of experience from child to parent illustrates the normalisation of socialisation-in-reverse. In the US, environmental education in schools has, for more than a decade, been systematically providing children with authority over certain adults. The New York Times reports that ‘eco-kids’ devoted to green values ‘try to hold their parents accountable at home’, and notes that adults become defensive under the ‘watchful eye of the pint-sized eco-police’ (6). School districts across the US have sought to capitalise on the idealism of ‘eco-kids’ by integrating environmental values into almost every school subject.
Politicians and governments have embraced environmental education as a potentially effective instrument for influencing and managing the behaviour of the public. One UK Labour MP, Malcolm Wicks, argues that environmental values ‘can act as vivid teaching aids in science lessons, civics lessons, geography lessons’, and in absorbing these lessons ‘children will then begin to educate the parents’. ‘In this way’, he says, ‘we can start to shift behaviour’ (7). A similar aspiration was expressed by UK Cabinet minister David Miliband, who argued that ‘children are the key to changing society’s long-term attitudes to the environment’. Miliband says that children are ‘not only passionate about saving the planet’; they ‘also have a big influence over their families’ lifestyles and behaviour’ (8). Former UK education secretary Alan Johnson wrote that ‘children have a dual role as consumers and influences’ and therefore ‘educating them about the impact of getting an extra pair of trainers for fashion’s sake is as important as the pressure they put on their parents not to buy a gas-guzzling car’ (9).
A recent report, The Role of Schools in Shaping Energy-Related Consumer Behaviour, outlined a framework for promoting educational initiatives that might impact on parental behaviour (10). Andrew Sutter, who runs one such initiative – the Eco-Schools scheme involving 5,500 schools – believes that it provides an opportunity for children ‘to be the teachers and tell their parents what to do for a change’ (11). This point is underlined in a UK government report on energy, which states that the ‘installation of renewable technologies in schools can bring the curriculum to life in ways that textbooks cannot’. Moreover, the report observes, ‘with schools often being the focal point of communities, the installation of renewables could help to shape attitudes in the wider community’ (12).
Not infrequently, the mobilisation of pester power to alter the behaviour of adults takes on the character of a frenetic crusade. The book How To Turn Your Parents Green by James Russell incites children to ‘nag, pester, bug, torment and punish people who are merrily wrecking our world’. Russell calls on children to ‘channel their pester power and issue fines against their parents and other transgressors’ (13).
In previous times, it was only totalitarian societies that mobilised children to police their parents’ behaviour. It was Orwellian, Big Brother-style states that tried to harness youngsters’ simplistic views of good and evil to reshape the outlook of adults. But who needs Big Brother when the former prime minister of Britain, Tony Blair, can openly assert that ‘on climate change, it is parents who should listen to their children’ (14)? It appears that preying on children’s fears and exploiting their anxiety is now considered to be a form of enlightened education. Yet the future of our children demands that we provide them with existential and moral security. Instead of feeding them on a steady diet of scaremongering, we need to inspire them about our potential to improve the future of our world.