Flour babies: Adolescent boys and child development

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  • This article was downloaded by: [The University of Manchester Library]On: 26 November 2014, At: 11:01Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

    Infant Observation:International Journal ofInfant Observation and ItsApplicationsPublication details, including instructions forauthors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/riob20

    Flour babies: Adolescent boysand child developmentLeslie IronsidePublished online: 04 Feb 2008.

    To cite this article: Leslie Ironside (2003) Flour babies: Adolescent boys and childdevelopment, Infant Observation: International Journal of Infant Observation and ItsApplications, 6:3, 134-139, DOI: 10.1080/13698030408406172

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13698030408406172

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    http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditions

  • Flour Babies Adolescent Boys and Child Development

    Leslie Ironside

    To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

    Ecclesiastes 3.1

    nd so begins Flour Babies, a novel written by the Childrens Laureate, Anne Fine, about teaching disaffected, adolescent, Am ale students in a comprehensive school. The main protag-

    onist is a physically larger-than-life boy, Simon Martin, in the notorious class 4C: What a shower ... the Sads and the Bads, the ones who had been despaired of most loudly and often in the staff room over the last couple of years. Anyone halfway normal (these were usually called the Lads) had been bagged as usual, by Mr King or Mr Henderson. And Dr Feltham always snaffled up the Boffins.

    Dr Feltham, the enthusiastic science teacher, sets the tasks for the school Science Fair - textiles, nutrition, domestic economy, child develop- ment and consumer studies, but Mr Cartwright, the seen it all many times before 4C class teacher, translates this to sewing, food, housekeeping, babies and so forth and thrift. After an unenthusiastic debate - It isnt fair. Theyre not real science, are they? None of them. Why cant we do explod- ing custard tins? - and a dubious voting system, Chile . . . chile . . . chile dev-el-op-ment, as Simon reads aloud stumblingly, wins the day.

    And the reaction:

    Thats babies isnt it? Were not doing babies, sir! That is girls stuff. It is! I shant be coming in at all now! Not till its all over, anyhow.

    134 - Volume 6 No.3

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  • Flour Subies

    And what is the project? Simon, as a punishment has been made to wait outside the staff room door and overheard his teacher:

    I dont believe this, Mr Cartwright was bellowing, I cannot believe my ears. Are you seriously telling me that these child development project things of yours are literally six pounds of plain white flour sewn into a sacking bag? And you intend to give one of these things to each of the maniacs in my class?.

    And after some further argument about figures Simon hears, Its still over a hundred pounds of sifted white flour exploding in my classroom!.

    Outside in the corridor:

    a look of sheer rapture spread over young Simon Martins face. Could he be hearing right? One hundred pounds of sifted white flour? Explodmg? Into the classroom? Oh, bliss and joy! Worth coming back to school. Worth all the miserable hours spent scraping his massive knees under the dolly desks, being moaned at by the teacher, and shrivelling with boredom. One hundred pounds of sifted flour white flour BANG!!!

    Simon then enters into blissful reverie as he imagines this scene - so beguiling . . . and perfect, so absolutely beautiful. His ears are blocked to the more mundane explanation that

    . . . the flour babies are a simple experiment in parent and child rela- tionships. Each boy takes responsibility for his flour baby for the whole three weeks, keeping a diary to chart his problems and attitudes. Its quite interesting what comes out. Its fascinating what they learn about themselves and about parenthood. Its a worthwhile experiment. You wait and see. But Simon was seeing BANG! And then a floury mush- room cloud obliterating the hated prison of the classroom.

    Much to everyones surprise Simon then takes to the task with enthusi- asm and becomes absorbed in it. The flour baby begins to acquire a meaningful form for him. It matters to Simon that she is looked after and he is quite aghast when another boy kicks his bag into the river. The experiment leads him and other boys in the class to reflect on their own history and to wondering how their parents ever managed to look after them. The task also enabled Simon to reflect with some anguish upon the fact that his father had abandoned him and his mother when he was

    Volume 6 No.3 - 135

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  • The International Journal of Infant Observation

    six weeks old and, for the first time, he enters into a more meaningful dialogue with his mother about this. His internal narrative had been that he - Simon - must have been too much to look after and in some way caused this event to happen. The apparent lack of meaningful dialogue between son and mother had reinforced this story over the years and blighted his development in terms of achieving his academic potential and entering into creative relationships within his educational career.

    The experience of looking after the flour baby however leads to a cathar- tic resolution enabling Simon to view his personal history with a more accepting rather than judgmental attitude. He lays some ghosts to rest. As the book reaches its end Simon speaks to his flour baby: I feel better now, really I do. I really dont think I knew how much the whole business has been bothering me. But I feel different now. I feel free. However,

    The flour baby stared back out of her sympathetic, long-lashed eyes. You do see, dont you? The look on her face never altered. You understand? The flour baby watched him impassively. And slowly, inexorably, Simon came back to his senses. What was he

    doing, sitting in a school corridor in a nice comfy bin bag, chatting to a lump of flour?

    Was he cracked? Simon leaped to his feet as if hed been scalded. Flour baby! She

    wasnt a flour baby. She was a silly, lifeless bag of flour. She wasnt even a she. She was an it.

    What was the matter with him? For nearly three weeks now, hed been discussing his life with a flour sack. Was he unhinged? This thing he was holding was nothing more than part of some boring school project. She wasnt real. None of them were real.

    Grasping the corners of the bin bag, he upended it forcibly. Flour sacks spilled far and wide . . . Picking one up, he hurled it at the ceil- ing. It split, showering flour all over. Simon didnt care. He felt the most extraordinary relief. As if he had suddenly been let out of gaol . . .

    and as he demolishes bag after bag he sings in his surprisingly fine voice:

    Toss all my burdens and woes clear behind me Vow Ill not carry those cargoes again Sail for a sunrise that burns with new maybes Farewell my loved ones and be of good cheer

    136 - Volume 6 No.3

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  • Flour Bobies

    Others may settle to dandle their babies My hearts a tall ship and high winds are near.

    This is the song he thinks his father whistled as he left the family house so many years before.

    Observing my internal responses to the book, I was struck by a certain similarity to the boys and the teachers response to the exercise of look- ing after the flour babies. I was also left feeling incredulous and disbe- lieving. As an ex-teacher of such a class I couldnt quite buy it. However, I was also intrigued and quite captivated by the book and its fast-moving style of writing. I both wanted to look after the reading experience, feel it as meaningful as well as wanting to put the boot in, kick the experi- ence into the river. As with Simon and his fellow pupils I experienced a range of vibrant emotions brought alive through the reading experience. Simon began to recognise something important - that loolung after babies is no easy task - as he splits the bags at the end of the book: Boot . . . Boot . . . Boot . . . More bags split and showered flour. His mother was a saint. Hed take her flowers. Hed take his mother a dozen red roses. She deserved them.

    As I struggled to maintain my equihbrium whilst reading the book I was also reminded of the lullaby Rock-a-bye baby:

    Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop When the wind blows the baby shall rock When the bow breaks the baby shall fall Down will come baby, cradle, and all.

    What an extraordinary thing for a parent to do - singing their child to sleep whilst using the most surprising of words, words alluding to concepts of aggression, hatred and indeed violence. This nursery rhyme provides a snippet of everyday life that illustrates the complex, multiple and sometimes contradictory levels of ordinary human inter- action. Thankfully the infant - at least at first - does not understand the meaning of the words, and later seems to ignore them. Such words could only induce worry and anxiety, presumably the last thing the ordinary parent would consciously want. Hopefully the infant grasps the loving, peaceful, containing intent of the melody, leaving the words to help the parent contain their more aggressive feelings.

    Winnicott (1949) in his famous paper Hate In the Counter- Transference certainly saw the lullaby in that light, and wrote of how a . . .

    Volume 6 No.3 - 137

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  • The International Journal of Infant Observation

    mother has to be able to tolerate hating her baby without doing anything about it. She cannot express it to him. If, for fear of what she may do, she cannot hate appropriately when hurt by her child she must fall back on masochism. The most remarkable thing about a mother is her ability to be hurt so by her baby and hate so much with- out paying the child out, and her ability to wait for rewards that may or may not come later.

    As a reader I had to tolerate feelings of wanting to walk out on the book as I waited for the rewards which undoubtedly later came but, within the story, Simons father was unable to wait for these rewards and interest- ingly Simon too begins to realise that, at his age, he was unable to settle to dandle his baby, and shared something in common with his father.

    The experience of caring for the flour babies leads, as Dr Feltham predicted, Simon and the other boys to question and think about many things in a way they hadnt done before. The initial enthusiasm was fired by delinquency - a desire to see the big bang; however Simon was then moved by the task and did then begin to observe his own responses. This led to a shift in his internal narrative about his father leaving: maybe it was not his - Simons - fault. Something of the innocence of childhood was now coming into his thinking as Simon seemed to take the first steps towards manhood and to begin to negotiate the important adolescent process of individuation and separation.

    Every parent caring for his or her child will have experienced sponta- neous feelings of hatred and aggression as the child keeps them awake, scratches their skin, pulls their hair, bites at the nipple. The infants hold on its object may be experienced as aggressive and attacking. It may be aggressive and attacking. Later - and sooner in some cases - it will be redefined. Malicious motivation will be applied. The behaviour will be seen as a violent action and be seen as naughty and bad. The concepts of violence and aggression are not alien. The difficulty of managing violence in ourselves and in others is also not alien. Each of us has endured the repeated experience of hating the person we love and loving the person we hate. Each of us has experienced the consequent feelings of aggression and guilt and it is through this cycle of experience that we have built up complex multi-dimensional internal objects. It is some- thing that we all know about and how we manage the balance between aggression, violence and hatred on the one hand and the reparative emotions of love, concern and empathy is of crucial importance and a resonating theme within the book.

    The book also tries to address something that is of increasing impor-

    138 - Volume 6 No.3

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  • Flour Bobies

    tance to our society; namely, what to do with disaffected youngsters, often male, finding the classroom unbearable and boring and left seek- ing excitement though delinquent gang activity. The book suggests that if a person begins to have a more thorough understanding of himself this leads to a better outcome. I was left feeling optimistic in terms of Simons future, and that his path might be different from his fathers. If there were a sequel to the book - say 20 years on - Simon might then be portrayed as a father who would be able to manage such complex and aggressive feelings towards a baby. This is very interesting in terms of attachment theory. Research using The Adult Attachment Interview (Main, 1985) suggests that the more coherent a persons knowledge is of their life story the more se...

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