This morning when I was at the gym, I walked into the changing room and caught the tail end of a conversation “…he was ever such a nice young man, its unusual these days… blah, blah… really well -mannered and pleasant, young boys aren’t like that anymore…” and so it went on for the time it took for me to open my locker and remove the things I needed for my shower. So not very long at all really, except that, as the parent of two older teenage boys, it was long enough to make my blood boil and then calm myself down enough to say “you must be talking about one of my sons!” with a suitably sweet smile that didn’t quite make it to my eyes.
The one who had been talking made a sharp exit, but the other one wasn’t in a position to leave the room, so I said “boys get such a bad rap these days, it isn’t fair! My eldest has always been tall for his age and I remember him coming in from the shop one day, when he was about 11, quite distraught because an old lady had crossed the road when she saw him coming.” And do you know what her reply was? “Yes, well, it only takes one incident and they all get tarred with the same brush….” Really?! I don’t think so. I think that was bare naked prejudice and I think we, as a society are on dangerous ground.
This is something that has wound me up at various times throughout the boy’s lives. Like when they come in freezing because they won’t put their hoods up for fear of frightening someone, or even in a more general sense when groups of teenagers are labelled “gangs”. Obviously, there are certain combinations of lateness of hour and adverse weather conditions, where even I would worry if I came across a group of youths, but my first thought would be for how horrid their home-life must be if they’d rather be hanging around outside in those conditions than chatting in one of their bedrooms – not how horrible they are.
I’ve considered several different routes I could take here, but for now I am going with teenagers in general…
As a society, we give teenagers no respect whatsoever. Right when they are at their most self-conscious we tend to ostracise, label and loudly and negatively debate the relative merits, or mostly otherwise, of the young people who are, after all, the future bedrock of our society. They are busy worrying about spots, relationships, choosing what they want to do for the rest of their lives (when most of the time they don’t know how they feel about tomorrow), studying for exams whose results will determine their path, needing sleep, weight issues, popularity contests, stifling parents who won’t let them out and insist they eat dinner at dinner time, managing a social life, finding a job, juggling part time jobs with study time, navigating new friendships while maintaining or moving on from old ones, questioning their very existence, believing the world hates them – It’s a massive amount for someone who doesn’t even know who they are yet! Yet,,these are the people whose taxes will pay for our hospital bills and pensions (I’m deliberately ignoring the state of the public purse here for the sake of my argument.) If there were to be a military draft, the boys that lady would cross the road to avoid are likely to be the ones who would fight for us. The teen years are a relatively short part of a child’s life, yet they are extremely important in shaping the adult they will have to become all too quickly. We seem to have forgotten that teenagers are still children and childhood is precious. As a society, we need to look much more carefully at the messages and cues we give them.
When they were 13 and 14, my husband and I took our boys to Italy where they were welcomed with open arms. Everywhere we went, people engaged with them. They were not made to feel like some waste of space appendage to their parents and ignored as so often happens when we are out and about here in the UK. As a result, they blossomed. They expected to be welcomed and they walked about with their heads held high, instead of shuffling about with their heads down like they generally feel obliged to do here.
It ISN’T rare to find a well-mannered, eloquent, funny teenager (I love chatting to my sons’ friends ) but it IS rare to find a middle-aged or above adult who will show enough tolerance and respect make a teenager (with all the horrendous baggage that comes with being in that age-group) feel confident enough to express themselves well.