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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Noisy adolescents at the theatre

The marshmellow test was first devised at Stanford University for testing the patience of four-year-olds. A marshmellow was put in front of them. They were told they could either eat it immediately or wait until the interviewer returned when they would get two. It turned out to be a strong indicator of their ability to become self-disciplined as they got older.

I was thinking about this last night when I went to the theatre and found myself sitting next to a party of ten adolescent boys on some sort of school or "youth group" (if we still have such things) outing. They had two supervisors but that didn't seem to make a lot of difference. I would guess they weren't delinquents or school refusers. They were just kids who had never once in their lives been called upon to sit still and shut up and so they didn't. They ate, drank and muttered throughout the first act. Ten minutes before the interval one went to the lavatory, then another and then a third. This in spite of the pleadings of one of the supervisors. At the interval the supervisor apologised to me. What am I supposed to say? "Oh, that's alright"? "You know you are bloody incompetent"? The usher had a word with him. He had a word with the boys. A couple of them refused to sit where he put them and left the auditorium. The play restarted. After ten minutes the supervisor, clearly rattled by the non-appearance of the lads, went after them. He returned ten minutes later on his own. Given what I know about teachers' responsibilities on school trips nowadays this was a big surprise. The two major fidgeters being removed, the rest of the party were quiet for the rest of the play.

I know all the arguments for taking kids to the theatre or art galleries and I know they particularly apply to those kids who are not likely to be taken there by their parents. However I don't believe that civilised behaviour suddenly blossoms when children can see the reason why they should act in a civilised fashion. Children are not naturally well mannered and considerate. Nor can they always be reasoned with, as these well-meaning adults were attempting to do. If you have to be told that you are being an annoyance to other people - many of whom have been looking forward to their evening out for months - then it's probably too late. If these kids are used to interjecting throughout lessons and other apparently formal occasions, then it's no use believing that they're going to stop once they're in a theatre. If you let a child take a Subway sandwich and a bottle of Malibu into a theatrical performance he will ingest it, probably noisily.

Later in the evening I was talking to a friend who's an experienced head teacher. She said that at her school children were lined up prior to going on a visit and told that if any of them stepped out of line the head would be called, she would come and find them wherever they were and take the miscreant straight to their parents. It seemed to work. On the other hand a younger friend who had a contemporary working as a young teacher in Wallsend said it had become customary to append a "thank you" to any request made of a child because doing the same with "please" risked a refusal. I think the former approach does the child a lot more favours than the latter.