|Michael Rosen: ‘My parents just gobbled up anything around them, whether it was leaves, or books, or television.’ Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian|
Michael Rosen: Why curiosity is the key to life
Growing up, Michael Rosen’s mum and dad taught him to ask questions, to explore ideas and to learn about everything. He says parents can be their children’s best teachers – through the stuff of daily living, not lists of dry facts
Saturday 6 September 2014 06.44 BST
Michael Rosen, the poet, broadcaster and former children’s laureate, has written a book on how to educate kids at home. As you might imagine, this has nothing to do with anything as dry and fusty as maths papers or lists of spelling and everything to do with the mess of ordinary life – the kitchen, the bathroom, the bottom of the garden.
It’s about trapping and scrutinising nits and listening to the pulse in your ear; it’s about telling stories and collecting old stones, messing about with the wires in old plugs and recounting Greek myths. His advice is inspiring and entertaining and thrilling and, at the same time (I felt I had to tell him), possibly apt to make the average, shall we say lazier, parent feel like a bit of a failure …
“Oh God. Oh no. Oh, don’t feel that,” Rosen says. “Oh no. Oh no. You’re not supposed to do all of it all of the time. Just some of it. Sometimes.” He cracks his hand against his forehead. “I don’t want anyone to feel guilty. Remember I’ve been doing this for …” he widens his mouth in an exaggeration of a wince. “Almost 40 years.”
He is sitting opposite me at home in north London, a big energetic cartoon of a man, his long legs and body folded into a black leather chair. At first appearance he is smarter and neater than he looks in pictures – nice jeans, cashmere jumper over a striped T-shirt, tamed grey hair. But when he moves or becomes animated (cross or upset or inspired, all of these within minutes), he seems physically to grow and unravel – morphing into a character by Roald Dahl (perhaps the BFG?), to whom he is often compared; or a sketch by Quentin Blake, who illustrates most of his books.
His eyes protrude, his hands become huge and gesticulating; the room suddenly seems too small. At the age of 68, he is the father of five children, plus two stepdaughters (across three marriages). His work has taken him into hundreds of schools, into meetings with teachers and publishers and ministers. But if he is qualified to talk about all this, it may be because he is so genuinely passionate, so enthusiastic, so in touch with what it is like to be a child.
“If you take that Freudian theory that we are like a city with layers,” he says, “that things that disappear are still there even if you can’t see them, always there potentially to be summoned. I guess I am just somebody who summons that stuff up all the time. I’m always mystified when other people don’t. Reading my poems, I can hear people saying, ‘Oh yes, I remember standing in front of a mirror when I was nine thinking one nostril is bigger than the other.’ But they haven’t thought about it for 40 years.”
He laughs, and then gives an enormous earthquake of a shrug.
He was brought up in a flat above a shop in Harrow, north-west London, the youngest son of Harold and Connie Rosen, who met in the Young Communist League. They were teachers and, together with his older brother Brian (a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum; their second son, Alan, died as a baby), they taught him to be “endlessly curious. People did often notice this about my parents. They just gobbled up anything around them, whether it was leaves or books or television.
|Michael Rosen at a Woodcraft folk camp in the Mendip Hills, c1959|
“I remember my dad reading out loud these popular science books and the next moment quoting some Russian book or Latin book. At the same time, he loved talking to people who weren’t educated or even literate, but who knew stuff. I remember him talking for hours to farmers or plumbers, or the bloke next door who was a gardener. “They taught me two things. The explicit message was to be curious, all knowledge was worth it: don’t be defensive about what you know, what Australians call cultural cringe – ‘I’m not good enough”. Society is bedevilled by that, this belief that there are incremental levels of worthiness. The implicit message was never think you’re not entitled to go and learn things and do things because you’re not posh enough.”
If his book has a thesis – although it is too playful and eclectic for that – it’s that all knowledge is valid and that the act of discovering things (working it out, browsing through bookshelves or on the internet, reading) is itself learning. Rosen recounts the story of David Attenborough finding an animal bone in the garden as a boy and taking it to his father, a GP, who pretended not to recognise it. Instead, they pored over zoology and anatomy books together: “They shared the excitement of discovery.”
Alongside “pretending not to know”, Rosen believes passionately in not imposing your own views, political or otherwise, on your kids (“let them sharpen their own knives”) and in having “long antennae”, following their lead, supporting their interests without taking them over or obliterating them because they are not “good or intellectual” enough.
“Take this sticker thing,” he says, lowering his voice (his nine-year-old is in the next room). “Emile here, my chap. He’s discovered football stickers. No, not stickers,” he thuds his palm again against his forehead. “Cards. Football cards. I keep getting rapped over the knuckles for getting that wrong. But the way he’s immersed himself in it, it sounds crazy but he’s now an expert in the flags of the world, the languages they speak in different countries, Spanish names, migration because he has raised questions like ‘How come there’s a bloke called Boateng who plays for Germany?’
“If you just want to be crude about it and think in terms of information, you would struggle to make any nine year old interested in this stuff. If you said, ‘Today we are going to learn the flags of the world’, you wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell, as my father used to say. But motivated by the desire to do it …”
He leans back and shakes his head, lost in wonder.
He has got better, he says, as a father – or hopes so. His third wife, Emma-Louise Williams, a record producer, is the mother of Emile and Elsie, 13. “These two are delightful, a treat, obviously at my stage of life. They might not say so but I think I have learned to keep my mouth shut. I still laugh at things when I shouldn’t, er, laugh.”
|Michael Rosen’s parents, Harold and Connie, in 1963.|
He makes a noise at the back of his throat, like he is strangling a laugh now. “I suppose because I am still in the business of going into schools and entertaining people, it’s not that I deliberately try to be hip or cool, but there are times when I mention a group or a band and I can see them wincing.
“But if I have one tip, it’s that we have to keep reminding ourselves how easy it is to diminish children. The football dads, you know, screaming at their kids, ‘You fool, why did you do that?’ – I thought it had become such a joke people had stopped. But Emile and me, we walk over the park and our jaws drop.” He shakes his head in horror. “Why would you come back to the park next week if your dad did that?”
Rosen’s second son, Eddie, about whom he has written in several poems, died, aged 18, of meningococcal septicaemia in 1999 and Rosen says that when the weight of grief lifted, “I suppose ... the old thing, reminding you you’ve only got one go at it, this life. It is a life, no matter how short or long, this is what you’ve got.”
He has been staring out of the window up at the sky, but he looks back into the room at the books, at the pile of kids’ drawings on the table.
“What do you do every minute, every hour... that’s what matters.”
• Good Ideas: How to be Your Child’s (and Your Own) Best Teacher by Michael Rosen is published by John Murray, £16.99.