Saturday, July 05, 2008

What to do, what to say?

I know it's not just because I'm the mother of teenagers that I can't bear to even look at a newspaper these days, but it makes it harder. I'm certainly not going to stop my kids from going out but as someone said it's the ones without knives who are getting killed. What am I going to do? Give them weapons to defend themselves?

So have a nice time, and by the way have you got your hanky, emergency money to get home, bus pass, flick-knife...?

This story in particular had me in floods of tears last night. Of course Shaki was begging for his mum, he was sixteen. Sixteen. That's younger than both of mine, and I still consider it my role to protect them. Eighteen teenagers have been killed violently in London this year, and that's not to mention the French students stabbed over 200 times last week. I know it's easy to get caught up in a wave of hysteria, and maybe I am over-reacting, but what else can I do? Nothing? I keep going through scenarios I've heard about why this should be happening:

1) as a country, we're scared of our teenagers - well, we have been for a long time. I remember the gust of physical anger and sadness I felt when I watched a middle-aged woman cross the road so she wouldn't have to walk past my son in his hoodie. I know she crossed because of him because I saw her cross back after she was 'safe' and look behind her to make sure he wasn't following her. I don't think he'd even noticed her. I wanted to run and challenge her, but I realised then I've done the same myself. Changed my path so I didn't have to pass a group of teenagers who were 'hanging around'. I certainly wouldn't ever smile at them, or say hello.

2) we don't give them any responsibility - yes, I agree, just look at the traffic round the school run. Don't we even trust them to find their own way? But, but...

3) as parents, we are too wrapped up in ourselves and don't want to lose our chance at fun - I'm pleading guilty here. I'm friends with their friends on Facebook, go to concerts with them and dance whenever I can. I can't imagine my parents doing any of those things BUT I'm sure they were just as wrapped up in themselves, and besides the fourth accusation against us is ...

4) we spend too much time thinking about our kids and putting them in the centre of our lives - can't win, I guess

5) there's nothing for them to do - or maybe there's just too much school work, too many hurdles to be got over, too many exams to pass so they lose the ability to think for themselves as to what they could do in any free time? Free time, what's that?

6) too much shopping and not enough nature - I've been thinking about this a lot since going to see Hugh Lupton's show about John Clare. He claimed the concrete jungles we live in now are sending us 'out of our minds'. An interesting phrase when you come to look at it.

So here I sit looking at that phrase, out of our minds, and going round and round in circles in mine. What to do, what to say? Does anyone have any suggestions? Or do we leave it all to the Government and the police to control our own children? Somehow, there's something a bit too Orwellian in that for me.


The Dotterel said...

One problem is that adults have so little contact with teens (other than their own). They do look scary, especially in groups, but when you realise they're just the Year 10s you were teaching yesterday, they're suddenly not threatening any more. It's the wider lack of community which is the problem.

Sarah Salway said...

Yes, definitely - one of the things I noticed when I moved down South from Edinburgh was that there was less age-mixing down here. Certain places in the town where I live seem teenage-only, whereas in Edinburgh you would get all ages together in the same place (albeit not socialising together) but at least it wasn't separated quite so much. And we have few central communal places either.

Clare Sudbery said...

18 murders is a lot, but not compared to the total number of teenagers in London. Chances that your kids will get killed or even seriously hurt are still tinily small.

One of the problems is that hysterical media coverage makes us treat each event as local and close, even when, statistically speaking, it isn't. We no longer live in small communities, instead we take statistically MASSIVE communities and extrapolate every dramatic event into our own front yard.

This, then (along with the hysterical media and the drive towards making parents panic at every little thing), feeds the fear of teenagers, which in turns alienates them.

I have a friend who is a juvenile justice worker. It is his job to spend time with young offenders. And you know what? He's not scared of teenagers, not even the ones that sit on his front wall every night and intimidate passers by. Not because he's hard, but because he understands that they are not interested in him, or in you. They are too busy trying to impress that teenage girl on the other side of the street. We are simply not on their radar, and even when they turn their attention to other teenagers and that attention apears aggressive, their barks are mostly worse than their bites (and he and I are neighbours in a deprived inner city area, not nice suburbs).

So, first of all, pay proper attention to statistics. Your childen are in far less danger than you are being encouraged to believe.

Second of all, sad though it is in the broader context, understand that the children of well-educated middle class parents and stable backgrounds are very unlikely to get involved in serious crime and violence, even when they live in areas where these problems are rife.

The secret, as it is in ALL areas of parenthood, is to relax. Don't panic. Don't fall for the hysteria which we are presented with from pregnancy onwards. Bring your children up to be responsible and independent, and trust that they - and their contemporaries - are wonderful human beings with the capacity to do great things and exercise great common sense, as long as they're given the chance.

It's hard, but the best thing you can do is, well, chill out.

(Incidentally, my partner also works with young people in a deprived inner city area - some of them gang members - and it's a great comfort to have him, his knowledge and his calm common sense close by. Things are rarely as bad as you think).

Clare Sudbery said...

P.S. Another great thing parents can do for their kids is to bring them up to be confident and lacking in fear. If we fill their heads with worries about every tiny or possible danger that might befall them, we just bring them up to be neurotic.

Also - and this is another sad fact - we create victims. The person who walks around nervously, looking afraid of what might happen to them, is much more likely to get picked on than the person who strides confidently with their head in the air. You've got a higher chance of being mugged if you scuttle along in the shadows, which is why people who become a victim once are more likely to enter a horrible spiral of victimhood.

And someone who starts with the assumption that the strangers around them are trustworthy and do not mean them harm is much more likely to seek help in an emergency, much more likely to help those that need it, and much less likely to become aggressive themselves, as so much aggression is rooted in distrust. This is how communities disintegrate.

Sarah Salway said...

Very wise, Clare. I work with teenagers as well, and would agree that they're not that interested in us. It's just as The Dotterel says - we are so used to hearing stereotypes that we forget to think of them as individuals we know. Also I think we can forget how funny they are. I laugh more with them than any other group I teach - there's a different way of looking at things that I really appreciate. And I agree completely about the 'victimhood' bit, the only time I've been mugged was when I was walking home with two heavy carrier bags feeling like a victim already.
You're right too about instilling confidence - hopefully I've done that, my two certainly don't cower at home BUT I do think, putting media hysteria to one side, it's hard for teenagers. It would be wrong not to be aware of this - they're not the enemy which is what you could imagine sometimes by reading the papers etc etc. Trouble is that the only stories we seem to want to hear are ones with black and white endings - absolutely dire, or a tremendous success (ideally from bad beginnings). Most of the teenagers I teach just muddle through.