Oh good, I’d been waiting for some synthetic hysteria about something a not even slightly public figure said at Labour conference. This year’s load of old cowpats concerns the comments of Sion Rickard, a Welsh teaching assistant, who yesterday told conference, to wild applause:
“I’ve never met a bad four-year-old. I’ve never met a four- year-old that was evil. Every child has a chance, and if we give them a proper education, we’ll empty our prisons… If we give them a proper education, we’ll probably not have any Tories because we will have brought up our kids properly.”
These comments were seized upon by reporters from Guido Fawkes as a sign that lefty teachers were brainwashing our children and/or Labour activists had gone off the deep end, again. (Guido, incidentally, has a long history of describing left-wing ideas as “evil”.)
I, too, think Rickard’s comments were problematic, but not for the reasons anyone else seems to. Here’s my problem. Rickard is wrong: a lot of four-year-olds are right evil little shits.
(It’s probably worth noting at this point that I do not, in fact, have children.)
I’m not, despite appearances, being entirely silly here. There’s a concept in psychology with the slightly confusing name of Theory of Mind which means, basically, the ability to recognise other people’s perspectives: to imagine the world as other people would see it.
Children generally develop Theory of Mind after they’ve developed the ability to communicate. If you’re on the phone to a very young child and you ask them what they are doing, they might reply, “Playing with this toy”, despite the fact you can’t see what toy they are playing with. It’s not just that small children are very stupid (though obviously they are, the tiny morons). It’s also that, not yet having acquired Theory of Mind, they cannot instinctively grasp your perspective, and so do not understand that they are not employing the word “this” in a way that’s currently meaningful to you. They do not imagine the world from your point of view.
It’s only around age four or five that children develop a functioning Theory of Mind, and begin to consider others’ thoughts and feelings and how the world might appear to them. Until that point, they will not instinctively understand that other people have beliefs, desires, emotions or experiences that are different to their own.
What kind of policy programme would someone without a Theory of Mind pursue if they were, catastrophically, elected to government? (Assume for this purpose that this is an adult politician, rather than an actual four year old.) Well, they would not worry about poverty, on the grounds that they had never been poor, so why would anyone else be so? They would gut public services, on the grounds that they never used them anyway. And they would cheerfully slash welfare on the grounds that they had never needed it, and so anyone who said that they did must be lying.
They would not care about renters’ rights, on the grounds that they were not a renter. But, being a landlord, they would worry intensely about the burden on landlords because that’s obviously a real problem, isn’t it? By the same token, as a boss, they would worry about the needs of bosses; but not being an employee, the needs of employees would be invisible to them. They would unselfconsciously see the world entirely from their own point of view, untroubled and unaware that other needs, desires or perspectives even exist.
What I’m saying here is, I don’t care how cute it is when your four-year-old parrots your views on that nice old Jeremy Corbyn: the odds are, she’s a Tory.