Educators sometimes give the impression that they are in the business of protecting their pupils from the negative influence of their parents. Schools are sometimes devoted to the project of correcting the “outdated values” that parents have taught their children. That’s bad enough! However, in recent times policymakers and educators have also embraced the idea that through influencing children they can reeducate parents. Instead of parents socializing their children they advocate a reversal in roles.
It is in the domain of environmental education that the project of socialization in reverse is most systematically pursued. Many environmental educators advocate pester power as a contribution to changing the behavior of adults. David Uzell, a professor of environmental psychology at the University of Surrey, 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. Uzell’s own research has focused on what he calls “inter-generational learning through the transference of personal experience typically from the child to the parent / other adults / home.”
This casual reference to the transference of experience of child to parent illustrates the normalization of the practice of socialization in reverse. In the U.S., socializing children through the promotion of environmental education has been practiced in schools for over a decade. The New York Times reports that a new cohort of “eco-kids” devoted to green values “try to hold their parents accountable at home” and adds how adults become defensive under the “watchful eye of the pint-size eco-police.” School districts across the U.S. have sought to capitalize on the idealism of “eco-kids” to integrate environmental values into whatever subjects they can.
Politicians and governments have embraced environmental education as a potentially effective instrument for influencing and managing the behavior of the public. In England one Labor MP, Malcolm Wicks, argues that environmental values “can act as vivid teaching aids in science lessons, civics lessons, geography lessons,” and through absorbing these lessons “children will then begin to educate the parents.” He adds that “in this way we can start to shift behavior.”
A similar aspiration was expressed by leading cabinet minister David Miliband, who argued that “children are the key to changing society’s long-term attitudes to the environment.” Miliband is convinced that “not only are they passionate about saving the planet but children also have a big influence over their families’ lifestyles and behavior.” Former 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.”
A report entitled The Role of Schools in Shaping Energy-Related Consumer Behavior is devoted to elaborating a policy framework as to how this objective of promoting educational initiatives can impact parental behavior. One such initiative which involves 5,500 schools is called the Eco-Schools Scheme. Andrew Sutter, who runs Eco-Schools, believes that it provides an opportunity for children “to be the teachers and tell their parents what to do for a change.”
This point is underlined in a government report on energy. It states that the “installation of renewable technologies in schools can bring the curriculum to life in ways that textbooks cannot.” Moreover, it observes, “with schools often being the focal point of communities, the installation of renewables could help to shape attitudes in the wider community.” Not infrequently the mobilization of pester power to alter the behavior of adults acquires 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.”
In previous times the practice of mobilizing children to police their parents’ behavior was confined to totalitarian societies. Authorities who attempted to harness youngsters’ simplistic views of good and evil are reminiscent of Orwell’s Big Brother. But who needs Big Brother when the then-prime minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, can assert that “on climate change, it is parents who should listen to their children”?