“How are the kids?”, “The kids are fine.” What, if anything, does this conversation tell us about British Society?

Janet Downs's picture
This is how an anthropologist with only an outsider’s view of British society might interpret an ordinary greeting: ‘In Britain, people often greet each other with, “How are the kids?” This is wonderfully revealing about the values of British society – their first concern is the next generation. And the hoped-for reply is equally revealing: “All the kids are well.” Not my kids. Not some of the kids. All the kids are well. For the British, society cannot be well unless all the children are well.’

It’s a valid interpretation but it is, of course, quite wrong. “How are the kids?” is one of many questions that Britons ask when they meet someone - it’s not a profound philosophical statement. It’s much the same as “How’s the wife/old man?” or “How’s the new car?”

Maasai warriors, according to Secretary of State, Michael Gove, greet each other with “Kasserian Ingera” which means “How are the children?” The answer is supposed to be “All the children are well.” This, according to the accepted Western interpretation, reveals the concern Maasai warriors have for their children. But according to the Guardian’s Nairobi correspondent, “How are the children?” is only one part of a long greeting process and includes other questions such as “How are the cows?”

But does “Kasserian Ingera” really mean “How are the children?” The maa dictionary doesn’t contain these words. Men are greeted with “súpa” not “éserian” which is given to women. “Lo murran” is used to greet a warrior. Words for children are “sompóye” or “l-arámi”. “E-ŋirô” is an uncircumcised boy and “enkéráí”, the nearest to “Ingera”, is a girl child. However, “enkéráí” or “inkéra” means child/children when used in sentences. One example gave advice about how to trick a child into coming near an adult who wanted to administer punishment: “Now that I want to whip the child, and you know very well that children will flee, deceive him/her to come.”

Does the greeting reflect Maasai society? An equally valid interpretation would be that children are valued in the same way as cattle – as a sign of wealth. Or maybe the number of children reflects a man’s virility.

So how are children regarded? Girls, like women, are subordinate to men. They marry shortly after puberty to a man chosen for them by their fathers. At puberty both boys and girls are circumcised. The 2011 Children’s Act criminalized female genital mutilation but the law is difficult to enforce. Not all children go to school. According to Laura Hauff’s thesis on the Maasai, brighter boys tended to be kept at home to learn traditional customs and look after cattle. School was regarded as being for the “dumb” child.

Mr Gove may think the greeting, which first appeared in a 1991 sermon by Rev Patrick O’Neill and widely posted on the internet, reveals valuable qualities to be emulated. But his advisers should have perhaps told him that in Kenya the children are not necessarily well, especially if they’re Maasai girls or mischievous children lured to a beating.

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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 05/07/2012 - 18:04

He does at last, however, seem to be showing some insight into his record:

"We are not putting our children first, not respecting the first duty any generation must discharge - to leave the world a better place for those who follow us.

We should be seeking to leave our children an inheritance enriched by our efforts - designed to be shared among all.

But we have been doing precisely the opposite.

We have been depriving our children - depriving them of the share of our nation's wealth that is properly theirs, depriving them of the protection from abuse and neglect they deserve, depriving them of the opportunities for fulfilment that should be theirs by right and depriving them of the education they need to make them masters of their own fate."

Perhaps some of the feedback about what it's like when the team for looked after children in a major city is cut from 17 to 3 is finally getting back to him.

I wonder if perhaps he is thinking of putting chidren, rather than voters, at the heart of education and evidence basing policy again? We can only hope.

We can only hope.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 06/07/2012 - 09:52

Rebecca - I don't think Mr Gove is showing insight at all. Who are the "we"? It wasn't "we" who abolished the Educational Maintainance Allowance, who stopped Building Schools for the Future, cut funding for Bookstart and Schools Sports Partnership, increased University Tuition Fees and tells secondary school pupils that the exams that they have taken are worthless.

Mr Gove's use of "we" is classic Squealer from Animal Farm.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 06/07/2012 - 10:26

Who specifically could he be referring to as 'we' Janet?

Do you think he's referring to the teachers who work relentlessly to put kids first despite the immense pressure on them to attend instead to ludicrous central initiatives or be punished for not doing so?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 06/07/2012 - 10:43

Rebecca - Mr Gove's "we" includes only those who agree with him. Of course, he makes it sound as if "we" are the older generation who must take the blame for letting down the young. By including himself in this "mea culpa" he implies that he, having been part of the generation that allegedly let the next generation down, is now taking steps to ensure that he is doing all he can to put this right. All those who oppose him are painted as being irresponsible, negative and selfish in not doing what he considers is necessary to ensure that "all the children are well".

It doesn't matter to Mr Gove that his policies are not underpinned by evidence or that they have been opposed by knowledgeable, experienced people. All that matters is that he appears tough, uncompromising and resolute - useful qualities for the desired trajectoryof his political career.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 06/07/2012 - 09:56

In his long, very long, speech Gove used the rhetoric of "excellence" to repeat the idea that those who oppose his ideals are suffering from "the soft bigotry of low expectations" and are failing thousands of children. He embraced "no excuses" and attacked adults who point out that disadvantaged children are less likely to achieve well in school especially if they are in a school with a predominantly disadvantaged intake (OECD backs this up, so does the Sutton Trust).

He followed this up by saying that equivalent exams lacked rigour but then proceeded to praise academies whose results were inflated by these exams. Then he compounded this error by describing a GCSE C (once a sign of above average attainment) as being "the most basic grade which is expected by employers" (in much-admired Hong Kong - see FAQs above - this grade was set at E).

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