We’re living in a world of contradictions, on the one hand we think children are growing up too fast with many fearing that childhood is over by the tender age of 12, yet on the other, scientists claim that for the purposes of health and medical treatment young people should be treated like teenagers well into their early twenties as their brains continue to develop, some even into their 30s.
So while 23 may be the new 18 and 18 the new 13, on the flip side – 6 is the new 10 and 12 the new 18!
How we have arrived at this bizarre situation is open to debate. My view is that it is due to a combination of powerful factors including the pace of 21st century life, media, marketing and peer pressure. Children want to act and behave older than they are yet conversely are poorly equipped to deal with adulthood when they arrive at the traditional adult milestones of 18 and 21.
Another major factor is micro-parenting. The parental and societal obsession with organising and micro managing children’s lives is having a lasting and possibly damaging effect.
From an early age many parents obsess about ‘entertaining’ their children. Every waking moment is filled with ‘valuable’ and ‘enriching’ activities from singing groups to Tumble Tots, mini-tennis and swimming lessons to violin, piano, dance and drama sessions – all pre-planned and timetabled. When not involved in these activities, children are spending longer and longer in front of a screen. Is this structured activity, designed to give young people an optimum start in life, actually depriving them of the tools they need to mature socially and organically?
Traditional pastimes of playing out with friends, which was my favourite pastime and that of over 80% of the parents surveyed by Netmums website, is largely confined to history – children rarely do it. Instead, the top choice of activity for today’s modern youth is playing alone on an iPad, or tablet. The same Netmums survey concluded that by 12, childhood was over for most children – 90% of respondents felt that children were under ever greater pressure to grow up younger than ever before.
This poses major problems for parents, educators and anyone dealing with young people – how do we help young people to mature and develop effectively and in a timely fashion when the centre is being squeezed from both ends?
Pre-teens are throwing off the trappings of childhood quicker while post-18 youngsters are not maturing as quickly. The risk we run if we don’t address this dichotomy is that we create a Peter Pan generation that will never grow up or at least not effectively.
Technology can be blamed in part for the situation in which we now find ourselves.
I’m no Luddite, but over the past few decades the changes faced by our young people have largely been shaped by their access to technology, the internet and social media.
Children in prams and pushchairs are handed smart phones and iPads to keep them occupied and entertained and their ability to swipe a screen is almost innate.
Technology has become a handy baby sitter and for parents and educators consumed by fears for child safety and protecting young people from the perils of the ‘outside’ world – the internet and social media provide a safety net. Ironically, these very tools which have replaced seemingly threatening activities come with their own hidden dangers and impacts many of which have yet to be fully realised.
Instead of being out and about meeting and interacting with people – today’s young people do the bulk of their socialising on their phones, cocooned in their own little worlds.
Our precious youngsters are caught between a rock and a hard place – we know the internet and social media to be dangerous places but in the risk-averse 21st century is that virtual world the lesser of two evils? Or should we be letting our kids get out and experience more of the real world regardless of the risks.
Even post A level, parents managing and minimising children’s exposure to risk and therefore learning opportunities has taken on a whole new dimension. While more young people are going to university – most are taken, dropped off at the door of their room in halls, settled in and fully kitted out with student supplies – a far cry from my university days when I travelled by myself to interview, then to university (following a trunk that had been sent on ahead!) and survived to tell the tale!
International travel, another means of widening horizons and helping young people to mature and find their feet is also being overly sanitised and micro managed.
Another prime example of where we have closed ranks to the detriment of the learning experience is the demise of foreign exchange trips – we regularly try to reinstate these trips but rarely get any takers. The bygone age of a foreign student swapping their home for yours and vice versa is a major loss to learning. It is difficult to replicate the complete immersion in a language that comes from being plunged into foreign family life. Organised language trips just don’t provide the same experience.
Health and safety and risk aversion is clearly necessary but as the old saying goes ‘you’ve got to eat a peck of dirt a day’ to build immunity, emotional and physical resilience as well as learning valuable lessons about yourself, life and survival – without it the risks can be even greater.
We have a packed international programme of travel for our girls at Newcastle High from African expeditions to sports tours and foreign language trips but it is questionable whether it makes the girls any more independent. Are we deluding ourselves that the strong, independent young women who are well supported in school and who are responsible, caring and important members of our school and wider community are fully equipped to deal with life as adults – once outside of the confines of school and home?
We are not doing them any favours if we manage every miniscule detail of their lives. Better to – take a healthy interest in their homework but don’t do it – do their washing but don’t go looking for it in their sports bag, or on their floor – give them lifts and ferry them to fixtures but encourage them to know the dates, times and venues – it is, after all, their life – they shouldn’t just have to rock up and take part.
By taking on every aspect of the planning we may think we’re helping but we are actually disabling them, creating what sociologists and psychologists call ‘passive dependency’ which can thwart their emotional and cognitive development. It is crucial for social reasoning, planning, problem solving and understanding that young people use their developing brains.
So where should we start? A recent article in the Times suggested that there were a number of key activities/life lessons that determine whether you are a capable ‘adult’:
Ironing a shirt
Doing hospital corners when making a bed – making a bed!
Changing a plug, lightbulb, tyre
Boiling an egg
Young people and adolescents don’t need to leave home to learn to become independent – that is one aspect of growing up that can start early, it could even go some way to solving some of the contradictions facing modern youth.