Which might go some way to explaining why Oxford University Press has chosen ‘anxiety’ as the children’s Word of the Year for 2021. Researchers for the Children’s Language Report surveyed 8,000 pupils from Year 3 (age seven) to Year 9 (age 14). Teachers asked them to discuss the words they would be most likely to use when talking about wellbeing and their experiences of the past two years. ‘Anxiety’ came out top, followed by ‘challenging’ and ‘isolate’.
Given that previous children’s Words of the Year include Brexit (2019) and Trump (2017), we might want to take this particular survey with a pinch of salt. It seems to be less about winkling insights out of the mouths of babes than putting adult words into them. Children, in my experience, want everybody to stop going on about Covid and let them get on with the business of having fun and growing up.
But it’s worrying nonetheless, as an example of how Project Fear has framed the way children and young people have been encouraged to experience and talk about the pandemic over the past two grim years.
Take the infamous March 2020 report by SPI-B, the behavioural science sub-group of Sage, aka the Nudge Unit, which advised: “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”
Simon Ruda, co-founder of the Nudge Unit, recently criticised “the level of fear willingly conveyed on the public” as “the most egregious and far-reaching mistake made in responding to the pandemic”. Nowhere was this clearer than in the messages transmitted, relentlessly and remorselessly, to children.
During the 2020 Summer of Shaming, young people were released from isolation to a blizzard of warnings not to ‘kill Granny’ by having too much fun – let alone actually going to visit her. Little kids were kept at arm’s length from their extended family, as if they were little more than nappy-clad viral vectors. Exhausted parents and demoralised youngsters waited for the schools, colleges and universities to open, and for life to return to ‘normal’. How naïve we were.
Staggered start times. One-way systems. Bubbles painted on playground tarmac. Children sent home because a classmate had tested positive. Packed lunches eaten outside. Children told to face forward, or seated so they couldn’t face each other at all.
Windows and doors wide open. Coats worn in the classroom. Coats banned from the classroom. Hands red raw from washing. Hands slimy with sanitiser. Time lost at the end of lessons by wiping down furniture; bins overflowing with wipes – how ironic, for the kids who allegedly chose ‘plastic’ as their word of 2018.
Children wearing masks in corridors, in class, not at all, back on again (and now, hopefully, off forever). Children stigmatised by exemption badges. Kids barred from hanging out with children in other year groups: goodbye extracurricular activities. No team sports, concerts, plays, trips, singing, shouting. No leavers’ proms. Results days by email. Graduation ceremonies over Zoom.