Saturday, February 7, 2009
With swathes of Britain covered in snow this week innocent folk have found themselves the unwitting targets of snowball attacks launched by grinning children. Snowball fights are breaking out everywhere. Some children, who have never seen so many inches of snowfall before, are enjoying the age-old, mischievous pastime of pelting one another with hand-rolled balls of snow for the first time. Adults are joining in, too.
The London bus drivers who found themselves with idle hands on Monday indulged in some snow fighting instead, while David Cameron got in on the act - hurling snowballs at his education spokesman Michael Gove.
But not everyone is happy with the storm of snow-throwing. Where in the past - as epitomised in those nostalgia-tinged tomes The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls - snow fighting seemed to be accepted as a normal part of life in a week-long winter wonderland, today there seems to be confusion, even green shouts of anger, over certain kinds of snowy activity.
So what is the proper snowballing etiquette? Is it acceptable for children to lob snowballs at adults, including perfect strangers? And should the chucking of a snowball ever become a police matter?
Simon Fanshawe, writer, broadcaster and author of The Done Thing: Negotiating the Minefield of Modern Manners, says those complaining to authority about being hit by a snowball are missing the point. Snowstorms, he says, turn society's "normal structure of authority" on its head, allowing kids to mock and embarrass adults in a way that they would never normally do. "Manners are all about context. They are not about set rules that must always be followed. Etiquette changes depending on where you are and who you are with." And the wonderful thing about heavy snow, says Fanshawe, is that it creates a "situation like Twelfth Night". "Twelfth Night is all about the 'night of misrule', where the servants become the masters and the masters become the servants.
When snow covers Britain, something similar happens: children who would normally avoid even speaking to adults suddenly feel it is okay to throw projectiles at us. "Snow temporarily undermines the normal structure of authority, which means it is perfectly acceptable for children to throw snowballs at strangers." If a child were to throw something like a shoe or pencil case at a passing man or woman on a normal, non-snowy Monday morning, that would be bad manners, says Fanshawe, since it would "disrupt normal activity". But when it snows heavily, "normal activity" is disrupted anyway, and the "rules change".
What is it about snow that alters the "structures of authority"? "Well, for a start, public space becomes extremely malleable", says Fanshawe. "The distinction between road and pavement becomes less clear. Trees look less like trees and more like decorations. And school is out. Some adults don't go to work. Normality is turned on its head - and children can sense that."
Fanshawe was hit by a snowball while out jogging this week. He responded by throwing one back. Judi James, a leading expert in body language and social behaviour, agrees that snowballing is a fun, rule-thwarting activity - but she says it also exposes adults' underlying uncertainty today about what is an acceptable way to relate to children. "Children have always thrown snowballs at adults. In the past they tried to knock off gentlemen's top hats with snowballs. "And back then, there was that wonderful adult response of shaking your fist at a child while also smiling - a response that expressed both adult authority and a recognition that children will be children. It wasn't a menacing response."
Today, however, adults feel they are caught in a Catch 22, says James. "We sometimes don't know how to respond to something like a snowball. Some adults feel it demeans their dignity and compromises their status. All their pent-up anger, all the times their boss has had a go at them, can be unwittingly released when they are hit on the head by a snowball. But if you respond too pompously, you're likely to be hit by 20 more.
"And in our era of the nanny state, if you decide to join in the fun and throw a snowball back at the children, and it happens to contain a stone or too much ice, will you get into trouble?" The new tortured debate about snow fighting shows how "adult authority and responses have changed" in recent years, says James.
Stuart Waiton of the Scottish youth charity Generation says the important thing for adults is - no pun intended - to keep their cool. "Kids can smell weakness, uncertainty, and other behaviour that is not 'adult-like'. "And any adult who gets involved in a snowball fight must be aware that this means he is now entering their world - and you will therefore no longer be in control."
Sir Dayvd ( putting away childish things, and picking up snowballs instead ) of Snowy Oxfordshire
Posted by dkWells