Children who do not have a childhood

Gail Richards, Melville, Sanctuary of Love. 4 October 2015

Today’s subject developed from what I came across, and still do, through my work as a Recruitment Consultant.   It started a year or two ago, but in this year particularly, where a new set of youthful job seekers have flooded the market – and have again demonstrated that they are not particularly interested in working, or interested in anything really.    I have on a number of occasions telephoned an applicant mid-morning who has sent their CV to me, only to wake them up with my call.  “Oh” I say, apologizing “are you ill?”  The response each time was – “No I am tired”.  “Goodness” I say, “what have you been doing?” – thinking that they have been studying all night or working night shift or something, and being astonished at the various replies – one being “No, I went to the gym”.   It sort of leaves you with nothing really to reply.

My pondering led further to the matter of today’s children / teenagers / young adults, and is one of which I know very little.   Not having children of my own and any nieces or nephews, I perhaps notice children especially when they are screeching in supermarkets.

Much of what I say today about young people is very generalist – yes, there are 1000’s of young, fabulous people out there – hard working and eager – I am talking about the rest of them.   Those with no plan, no goal, no interest, no self-awareness, no connection, no hope, no faith, no belief, no empathy, no compassion, no motivation, no self-thought, no self-worth possibly.  So many of them.

I am sure that each generation has questioned the attitude and values of the generation following.   Imagine what the Victorians thought about the Edwardian era, and I know that my parents were horrified at the thought of the teenagers and young adults of the day who obviously “went mad” listening to heavy metal music, being a tad disrespectful possibly, and young girls smoking and drinking.  Horror upon horror!

The past two centuries have brought remarkable developments in technological and philosophical areas.  Almost hidden among them however, have been quiet and dramatic changes in public attitudes toward the family and particularly child rearing – quiet in the sense that the changes in culture and society have been so gradual that the human mind has not always detected them; that these changes have just crept upon us, only for us to wake up one day and say “what on earth happened”.  Quiet also in the sense that, having recognized a need to adjust some of our attitudes from those of the past, we have easily accepted change, or been swept along, unable to break out of the rip tide of change, unable to return to shore.

Today’s Western society has seen an alarming decline in moral direction and spiritual values.  Our societies seem to believe that they have outgrown their need for God, and other Masters, and that science reigns supreme as the arbiter of all the important questions of life.   The nuclear family has largely disintegrated, and the stabilizing impact of the extended family and of close-knit communities has diminished.   The sheer pace of social change is dizzying.

Increasingly our “me first” society is competitive and materialistic, addicted to selfish pleasures.  It is characterized by considerable levels of stress and demands, which manifests itself in many ways.    Personal achievement could also come through our children’s scholastic and social achievements – play more sports, strive for the 1st prize or more A’s, be part of every school activity possible – after school activities as well, social life – being in the A list of connections.

If our way of life has lost meaning, if the rapidly changing times in which we live are confusing, nowhere has this had more telling impact than on families attempting to bring up children to be moral, God-fearing, and equipped to fulfill their obligations in service to the community.   Instead the approach has shifted to being child orientated, yet with little clear parental focus on a desired outcome.  Children are increasingly given less direction on how they should behave and are allowed to grow up more or less as they please.  They assimilate only hazy ideas about what comprises right or wrong; the only remaining criterion for success seems to be material prosperity.

This is borne out by the desire of a lot of young people seeking work, to sit behind a desk, playing with the computer, being important but not really having any responsibility, and of course – earning a really great salary – in what discipline or industry they have no idea, and of course, with no experience.

It is a given fact that the childhood experienced by today’s children is significantly different from that of previous generations.

No doubt the fragmented family is one of the key factors that contribute to increased childhood distress.  Another cause is that the individualistic values have created a world for children where many people are trying to make life better only for themselves and not for other people.

There is a decline in certain cultures, of households with children, and in a report I read recently (Vision.org), this decline is attributed to the fact that today‘s couples express a yearning for companionship, intimacy and personal fulfillment in marriage.  In order to thrive, these so-called soul mate relationships require high levels of maintenance that demand time and attention.  Children, who also require considerable time and attention, can be seen as competitors.

Marriage has changed – it is no longer a safe/predictable pattern as was before – it has lost much of its influence as a social institution governing parenthood.   Legally, socially and culturally, marriage has an altered definition, and such redefining of marital expectations is weakening the link between marriage and parenthood.   Traditional marriage, once widely recognized as society’s best setting to provide economic stability and emotional security for children, now competes with other socially acceptable options for bearing and caring for children.  Steady increases in births out of wedlock and in cohabitation, and divorce rates, have resulted in more fragmented families.     It is interesting to notice stickers on the back windows of motor cars, showing a single adult figure and a number of children, possibly a pet or two.   My car’s back window would be a single adult figure, 2 dogs, 12 cats, and hundreds of birds.

Further splitting of the traditional family is seen in the migrations of certain family members to other countries, sometimes leaving behind older children – or perhaps they exercised their choice not to go – perhaps we could ask the question if that choice was in fact an option for them to make.        Children born in single family if I can put it like that, whether through conscious decision or divorce or such like, often increases the likelihood of a biological father’s absence, and when men are missing from the parenting equation, it alters family dynamics and affects everyone.  This can be seen in this country of fathers working away in Africa or overseas in order to earn money for their families. The fragmented family also extends to the missing parents, through disease, where the grandparents try to care for their grandchildren, but are so far estranged from what they knew as parents to what is the norm today.

In certain cultures, another trend is the time in the household that is childfree to having children in later years.  The childfree years are often portrayed in popular culture as years of fun, freedom and establishing careers while the child rearing years are increasingly seen as a temporary and transitional stage of adulthood, an interruption in the pursuit of personal fulfillment.

On the other hand, many teenage girls are producing children with no apparent forethought, and hugely ill-equipped to raise and nurture a child in adverse conditions.

It is time we ask ourselves some serious questions about the appropriateness of the changes in the past +- 5 decades that have been embraced in relation to children.  Undoubtedly there have been some necessary and beneficial developments, but common sense should also tell us that not all change is good.

We hear of the failure of education systems, diminishing literacy rates, growing school violence, teen immorality, juvenile crime – the list is endless.

A very prominent disease, and here I am not referring to the AIDS syndrome – is the disease of “I couldn’t be bothered”.  If we do not teach our children to be compassionate, and develop in them a sense of caring and empathy, the spiral will continue downward.

If we do not prepare our children for life, then it is as if we have just abandoned them, leaving them to their own devices and not spending time with them, whether deliberate or through circumstances unavoidable – but rest assured – magazines, television, peers, electronic uses and abuses, quick-fixes like drugs and alcohol are becoming more significant influences on a child’s life.    Children grow older – and we need to know what they are taking with them when procreating the following generation.   How scary is it to think that the “Whatever” generation will be, and is, producing children.

Now, having said all this, a gut response to the seemingly accusatory statements directed at parents gets the response of “I can barely survive in this life, so how can I teach my children to be hopeful”.   We are fearful of so much – of being attacked, or losing our job or becoming ill, or not earning enough to get from one day to the next.  We fear our existence in this country; we fear that we do not measure up – to wherever that is.

I want to quote from a book by Robert Bly – The Sibling Society – who argues that children without childhood do not actually grow up but remain locked in a half-adolescent, half-adult mentality.  He says that “people of say 20 years of age look at those of the same age in so many other countries – wearing the same jeans, listening to the same music, speaking a universal language that computer literacy demands.  Sometimes they feel more connected to siblings elsewhere, than to family members in the next room”.

In this sibling society, it is hard to know how to approach one’s children, what values to try and teach them, what to stand up for, what to go along with – it is especially hard to know where your children are in the scheme of things.   Does all this result in a missing childhood – and it scares me that children sort of skip a step and go from babies to half-adults.

So, what to do?  Many parents have called for schools to be more involved in the child’s upbringing, teaching them the “Golden Rules”.   But, we have teachers struggling merely to install the basics of education in our children.  A terrifying percentage of young people leave the system / or complete the system, unable to read – much less master the other 2 R’s – “riting and rithmetic”.

The fundamental answer to the healthy development and care of children surely lies with the present generation of parents, not with the children, nor with teachers, nor with law enforcement or the community at large – sorry, a lot of them just don’t give a hoot.   Children begin their lives with a remarkable genetic inheritance; their lives are moulded by a multitude of other factors and parents should act as supervisors of all this input to see that the influences on their children are as beneficial as possible.  If parents, however, are themselves products of societal influences and not confident in deciding what is good or bad, or if they turn their children loose is a sea of diverse ideas without guidance, the chances of producing a well-adjusted young adult are slim.

There is an old saying “the entire village brings up the child” – a wonderful thought and certainly proven, but here you need to ensure that the village is healthy to start off with.

No–one ever said parenting was easy.

I would like to read a letter that was presented to parents at a school evening (this is from my work colleague whose 15-year old son is at a Boys’ school in Durban) to prepare the parents for their teenage child’s attitude.   I do not know the author of this letter.

Dear Parent,

This is the letter I wish I could write.

This fight we are in right now. I need it. I need this fight.  I can’t tell you this because I don’t have the language for it and it wouldn’t make sense anyway. But I need this fight. Badly. I need to hate you right now and I need you to survive it.  I need you to survive my hating you and you hating me.  I need this fight even though I hate it too.  It doesn’t matter what this fight is even about- curfew, homework, laundry, my messy room, going out, staying in, leaving, not leaving, boyfriend, girlfriend, no friends, bad friends.  It doesn’t matter.  I need to fight you on it and I need you to fight me back.

I desperately need you to hold the other end of the rope. To hang on tightly while I thrash on the other end – while I find the handholds and footholds in this new world I feel like I am in.  I used to know who I was, who you were, who we were. But right now I don’t. Right now I am looking for my edges and I can sometimes only find them when I am pulling on you; when I push everything I used to know to its edge. Then I feel like I exist and for a minute I can breathe. I know you long for the sweeter kid that I was. I know this because I long for that kid too, and some of that longing is what is so painful for me right now.

I need this fight and I need to see that no matter how bad or big my feelings are – they won’t destroy you or me. I need you to love me even at my worst, even when it looks like I don’t love you. I need you to love yourself and me for the both of us right now. I know it sucks to be disliked and labeled the bad guy. I feel the same way on the inside, but I need you to tolerate it and get other grownups to help you.  Because I can’t right now.  If you want to get all of your grown up friends together and have a “surviving-your-teenager-support-group-rage-fest’ that’s fine with me. Or talk about me behind my back-I don’t care. Just don’t give up on me. Don’t give up on this fight. I need it.

This is the fight that will teach me that my shadow is not bigger than my light. This is the fight that will teach me that bad feelings do not mean the end of a relationship. This is the fight that will teach me how to listen to myself, even when it might disappoint others.

And this particular fight will end. Like any storm, it will blow over. And I will forget and you will forget. And then it will come back. And I will need you to hang on to the rope again. I will need this over and over for years.

I know there is nothing inherently satisfying in this job for you. I know I will likely never thank you for it or even acknowledge your side of it. In fact I will probably criticize you for all this hard work. It will seem like nothing you do will be enough. And yet, I am relying entirely on your ability to stay in this fight. No matter how much I argue. No matter how much I sulk. No matter how silent I get.

Please hang on to the other end of the rope. And know that you are doing the most important job that anyone could possibly be doing for me right now.

Love, your teenager.

So, parents and children, teenagers and young adults, hold on to the rope.  Believe in God and love Him with the greatest emotion possible, feel and care for your village, be compassionate, support and defend, discover and continue searching for what you believe to be what you hold true to yourself.

In conclusion – another anonymous author’s wise words –

Do not ask your children

To strive for extraordinary lives.

Such striving may seem admirable,

But is a way of foolishness.

Help them instead to find the wonder

And the marvel of an ordinary life.

Show them the job of tasting

Tomatoes, apples and pears.

Show them how to cry

When pets and people die.

Show them the infinite pleasure

In the touch of a hand.

And make the ordinary come alive for them.

The extraordinary will take care of itself.

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