Jayne Dowle: Immigration debate must begin in bosom of family

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PARENTHOOD is a minefield. Just when you think you have a straight path ahead, something else pops up and you have to defuse it. If you’re a half-decent parent, you have no choice but to tackle it head on. We were talking about school the other day. “What’s the point of learning French?” my son Jack pipes up. “I’d be better off learning Polish.”

An insightful comment on the relevancy of modern languages. And also, a telling observation of how Jack sees the world changing around him. Politicians and commentators can try all they like to sell any given situation to adults. They can appeal to their better judgement, put forward arguments and counter-arguments, and come up with clever theories. You can’t do that with children though. They see what they see, and hear what they hear. Like Polish being spoken all around them.

Clearly, it has not escaped Jack’s notice that there a lot of Polish pupils coming to his school. There are also a lot of Polish people in our home town of Barnsley. I tried to check exactly how many, but no-one seemed to know, so really I don’t have much to work with.

Jack is almost 12 years old. Just at that age when he is starting to ask questions. This is what I mean about parenting being a minefield. He is soaking up opinions like a sponge. Anything I say to him could either set his attitude in concrete or cause him to rebel against the parental line. Or, possibly, scar him for life.

What’s a reasonable response to a comment like that then? Say “don’t be silly” and you look, well, silly. And out of touch. And possibly in denial. Agree with him wholeheartedly and you’re kind of condoning the unwitting racism. Come out with a lengthy theory about why some languages are more relevant than others and you run the risk of either boring him half to death or confusing him totally. My reaction then? To offer up a wry smile and a raised eyebrow.

Just how do we broach the thorny issue of immigration with our children? If you ask me, it’s even more difficult than talking about the birds and the bees. At least with that, primary school gives them a good grounding. And really, you can’t argue with reproduction. There are no subtleties or nuances. With immigration though, the facts and figures don’t even begin to tell half the story. Even the word itself doesn’t begin to cover the complexity of the subject. How does an 11-year-old begin to differentiate between a Premier League football star whose grandparents came from Jamaica in the 1950s and a classmate who just got off the plane from Gdansk?

Take this latest research by the Policy Exchange think-tank. By 2050, it is estimated that ethnic minorities will make up more than a third of the British population. These statistics won’t necessarily register with our children, but they get the gist.

They see classmates joining them from all over the world. They stand in a queue in the market and see women from Africa bartering for vegetables. They hear people tutting and making comments at the Romanian families who have recently arrived in town. And yes, they hear derogatory words which we might not like them to hear, words which are bandied about as entirely acceptable in certain company.

They might not be able to spell the word “assimilate”, but it’s only natural for them to ask how it’s all going to fit together. And children are naturally conservative creatures. They tend not to like change or anything which upsets the status quo. In the worst cases, their fear and apprehension turns into bullying and victimisation. They are only just establishing their own identity. Ask them to think about the identity of a whole nation and they look flummoxed.

Our challenge, then, as parents, is to steer a sensible course through this minefield. That’s why we have to be so careful to answer questions with sensitivity and compassion. We also have to be careful not to duck the big issues entirely and hope that someone else will fill the gap, because young minds are very impressionable.

When I was a girl, we took pride in supporting the political causes our parents supported. It was a positive affirmation of who we were. Our politics were all about joining in, about pulling together as a community. Now it’s all about division, essentially a negative ticket. When I first became politically aware back in the early 1980s, it was a very black and white issue – either left, or right. Now, it’s every shade in between.

The political landscape has changed beyond recognition. As we know, that old-fashioned party allegiance has scattered. It is being supplanted increasingly by the charismatic appeal of single-issue politics. And young people are very taken with single issues.

I know what Jack’s next question is going to be, because the local election posters are already going up in the windows along our street. And that’s “what’s Ukip?”. Wish me luck with explaining that one to an 11-year-old.