An examination of the challenges parents face in a world of materialism, media, and work schedules that lend themselves to everything but parenting.
We make our kids too fat. We don’t beat them enough. We beat them too much. They watch too much television. We don’t spend enough quality time with them. We don’t praise them enough. We buy our little girls sexualized Bratz dolls, helping to boost Britain’s status of having the highest teenage pregnancy figures in Europe. Our little boys spend too much time on the Play Station, and now they’re achieving well below girls, and hate reading and writing. The picture is bleak. Are parents losing the respect they need to bring their children up properly? There are evictions for parents of unruly children; possible prison sentences for the parents of truants; orders to attend parenting classes – do you still want to have that baby?
Here in modern times, one’s ability to parent is being judged more frequently and harshly than ever before. There is no doubt that parents must assume responsibility for the demeanour of their children. This goes without saying. But are the other factors relevant to the development of a child, and a parent’s ability to raise children successfully, being disregarded?
The youth of today are despised. And they know it! I refer particularly, though not exclusively, to boys – teenage, inner-city, ‘street’ boys. Teachers fear them. Shopping malls target them. The police oppress them. Suburbia mistrusts them. And the media taints them. Yet, as fearsome as they may seem, each one of them is someone’s child, was someone’s cute little baby, about whom dreams were harboured and striven towards. So, does what parents want for their children differ in accordance with race, class or culture? I think not. Whether you’re white, black, Asian, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or atheist, our aspirations for our children are the same.
We all love our children, and want the very best for them. We all want to die before our children. We want to experience the sense of pride that comes from seeing them achieve and fulfill their desires, as we insist on the sky being the limit. This is how it is when they are born - all of them! We start out loving them unconditionally, praying that they will avoid the pitfalls we ourselves come up against. Everyone tells us how adorable our babies are. We’re bombarded with gifts and affection for our bundles of joy. So when does it change, what makes it change, does it change for everyone?
Means make a difference. Some of us have a great deal of money, others, just enough. Then there are those with too little. Money buys opportunities, and opportunities translate as education, experiences, and even the ‘benefits’ of nepotism! The more money you have, the wider your range of choices.
Then there is the fact that some families are headed by two parents, and others by one. Yet the requirements of child rearing are the same. We all need to work, whilst trying hard to balance material, emotional, financial, spiritual and personal needs: ‘tis a struggle, but clearly more so for those doing it single-handedly.
I spoke to a mother of two on her perception of parenting: “Yeah, it’s hard,” she said, “but I’m trying. I’ve got a son and a daughter, and it’s just me. My girl’s twelve, and my boy’s seventeen. He didn’t leave school with anything, but he’s doing alright; he’s got a little job at Sainsbury’s. He’s had a couple of scrapes with the police, been stopped and that, but nothing serious, thank God!”
She giggles and sighs, all at once as she continues “…trying to bring him up to be a man, I’ve always found a struggle, but I’ve done what I can, and still am. I often call on my male friends to talk him through certain things, I think that helps. But I kind of feel like I don’t know when it’ll be over; now he’s seventeen, is he through the worst? I hope so…My daughter’s only twelve still, but she’s always felt easier. I guess our interests are more similar and I can deal with the woman things. My son was tackled by the police by the time when he was her age; that’s not happened with her. And she doesn’t have issues feeling silly about spending too much time with her mum, and wanting to be out there with friends all the time, but I suppose my son puts restrictions on her as well, and that helps me.”
Another mother I spoke to had this to say: “It’s just me and my son, and I’ve always brought him up to know that before he’s a man, he is a human being, regardless of what anyone wants to say about that! I do think male role models are important, of course, as are female, though for different reasons. Having said that, a man doesn’t qualify to mentor my son, merely on the basis that he is male; I’m concerned about your outlook on life, whether or not you’re positive and constructive. I have to deal with all the gangster rap and gun issues, the name brand issues, and those about protecting himself from street crime. It definitely isn’t easy, but I’m an optimist, and extremely faithful. He’s thirteen now, and so far so good.”
When I asked if they felt supported by the wider world, the first woman said a categoric, “No! Sometimes I think instead of just getting on with the business of bringing up my kids, I’m always asking if I’m doing things right, or even wrong!”
The second mum became quite animated, as she passionately remarked: “I’m very mistrustful of the system. When I look around me, I don’t feel like it likes my son, or means him well. This system’s only kind to particular parents and particular groups of young people. Those it doesn’t like, it sets out to confuse and destroy. As a parent, I’m left trying to protect my child from things that are presented as safe or normal. On the one hand, they tell our kids that they’re miniature adults: giving them phones, cash point cards, free reign on the internet. On the other hand, we’re supposed to try and keep control of them despite all these exposures…I’m desperately trying to prove that keeping control is not impossible, but they’ve certainly made it very difficult. I don’t want to isolate my son from his peers, so it’s about balancing what he sees and how much of it I’ll allow him to partake in.”
They both clearly feel quite aggrieved. So what is the government’s responsibility in all of this? It is they who have ultimate control: control of the media, our work patterns, and consumerism. Never before has a generation of young people been so bombarded with materialism and excess. Images of youthful affluence and success abound. And they’re made to believe it’s easy!
Their appetites are whet with the likes of Pimp My Ride, Cribs, and opportunities through Myspace. Possession of well-advertised iPods, MP3 players, and mobile phones keep them feeling like they’re succeeding. And let’s not forget the various name brands. I believe Nike is still king on the pitches, with everyone aspiring for Prada! Then there’s the pricey PSP range, the top games £50 apiece. These consuls keep the kids subdued and cost hundreds of pounds. But they’re not toys for rich kids, so generous are our nation’s game masters! They’re available to all, at exactly the same cost, obtained by any means necessary! And, boy, do those means vary! We then have MSN and ‘Yo Momma’ to misguide and distract their young minds, and keep them talking shit! This is the diet that nourishes the future generation, so what do we expect them to regurgitate?
Though our youth are probably not astute enough to untangle themselves from this madness, they are not stupid. They sense there are forces unseen working against them. Even they that become so distant from their families that they decide to join gangs and adopt them as replacements are able to express themselves intelligently. Speaking to Ross Kemp on one of his recent programs, one young gang member spoke articulately about the fact he knows it is the government that is responsible for the wide availability of guns on our streets. He said it is done to “keep certain people in their place.” Listen to their music – grime – they’re all rapping about it. He went on to say that he knows it is wrong to rob, but if he didn’t rob, he’d probably be robbed and blown away by someone anyway!
Ross Kemp concluded that “…the prospect of ten-year-olds carrying sub-machine guns is truly terrifying,” and that “…their anger and sense of hopelessness cannot be ignored.” Curious about what the government might have to say about his exchanges with gang members, Kemp interviewed the Home Secretary, John Reid. Suggesting its absurdity, Reid said he’d heard remarks about governments flooding inner-city streets with guns before. Defensively, he retorted, “…we’ve increased sentences for gun crime and banned replica guns… Parents must face up to their responsibilities! Why don’t parents know where children as young as 8 years old are?” Is it any wonder parents feel unsupported?
Now, let’s be fair. Governments have introduced Breakfast Clubs that open from 8:00 AM, and after-school clubs that close at 6:00 PM: very useful services. But what’s their focus? The morning rush to get everyone ready, out of the house and in time to beat the traffic is stressful. By home time, parents are wasted, kids are wasted, and it’s almost bedtime: another day of parental input lost! Parents are needed in those offices: needed to tap away at computers that look just like those that are in their homes?! Rushing to the office, millions of cars block the roads amidst soaring blood pressures, as drivers brandish and tolerate passing curses. The government’s remedy? The congestion charge and higher taxes for the most expensive cars in the fight against pollution. This can’t be the best way to keep the nation’s wheels chugging round!
Could the government not promote measures to encourage working from home? Perhaps it’s time governments started tackling the culture of mistrust among managers, and in the work place generally. I wonder how necessary one’s physical presence in the office five days a week is? Could working from home have a positive effect on productivity and road congestion? I’m already thinking about the impact less reliance on before and after-school clubs could have on family life, and the work-life balance. With what depth and sincerity have these options been explored?
It’s easy to believe our children are in a mess. We live in an age of accountability, where successive governments have chipped away at responsibilities for which parents should naturally take charge. They’ve behaved like parents can’t be trusted. But the undue emphasis on children’s rights and privileges seems to have backfired. Our children are exposed to so many influences, and encouraged to have so many choices, empowered to pressure parents, but lacking experience to make choices wisely. It’s our children who line the pockets of their idols, many of whom thank them by simply gripping their wrists tightly and leading them further and further down the road of confusion; they feel no obligation, whatsoever, to acknowledge the innocence of their fans and guard it. At what point will we remember that children need and want guidance and protection, protection from all that endangers – even if that is themselves?
1st May 2007