An open let­ter …

On the in­no­cence — or not — of youth

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - MEGAN NICOL REED - Do write. megan­ni­col­

We knew what we were do­ing. Oh not ex­actly, not the finer de­tails of the con­se­quences of our ac­tions, but the broad out­line, the rough draft of the dam­age we would cause, this we un­der­stood. He was new to teach­ing, overly en­thu­si­as­tic, de­lib­er­ately wacky. And we were at that dan­ger­ous stage, ado­les­cence’s cusp. He was, we de­cided, a dick. And for this crime, we would have him pun­ished. We would take his propen­sity for ruf­fling our hair, his ten­dency to ex­cit­edly tap us on the shoul­der when he wanted to make a point, and we would present it as some­thing “in­ap­pro­pri­ate”. Luck­ily for him and, I see now, us, a more se­nior teacher cot­toned on to our schem­ing, and swiftly nipped it in the bud. I as­sume she also took him aside, for the jok­ing around, the ca­sual af­fec­tion, stopped as abruptly as if stomped on.

I was re­minded of the ter­ri­ble trou­ble my friends and I so nearly caused, aged 11, when I read last week of a teacher’s ac­quit­tal af­ter three girls ac­cused him of in­de­cent as­sault. Within a day of the claims be­ing made, this man, who had taught his whole life, was dis­missed from his job. He said it had been trau­matic for his elderly par­ents; that he had strug­gled to go out­side. I felt for him im­mensely; one thing he said in par­tic­u­lar, though, stayed with me. He re­vealed it was not only his new mis­trust in the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, which would keep him from re­turn­ing to the class­room but “the de­vi­ous na­ture of some chil­dren”.

It is not fash­ion­able to talk about chil­dren in this way. Our cur­rent way of think­ing paints chil­dren as eter­nally guilt­less, ca­pa­ble of caus­ing no harm, re­quir­ing pro­tec­tion from the very world it­self. I’m not sure I agree. It’s not that I would have us re­turn to the me­dieval no­tion that all chil­dren are born sin­ful, their souls re­quir­ing sav­ing; how­ever, some­where along the line we have taken Rousseau’s philoso­phies around the in­nate in­no­cence of child­hood, the Ro­man­tics’ idea of chil­dren be­ing closer to God, and we have placed them on a pedestal. One I’m not sure is al­ways de­served.

Much about mod­ern par­ent­ing seems to stem from this weirdly mis­placed fear: that ev­ery de­ci­sion we make, ev­ery step we take, will im­pact neg­a­tively on our off­spring. We couldn’t pos­si­bly use a lo­cal teenager to babysit Se­bas­tian. What would hap­pen if he woke up and was up­set! There is this un­der­stand­ing that chil­dren must not be sub­jected to any­thing scary, when the very best writ­ing for chil­dren has al­ways been un­bear­ably dark (Brothers Grimm, Roald Dahl). That they can­not be told the truth. No, dar­ling, Mopsy didn’t die; she’s just hav­ing a very spe­cial, ex­tra-long bunny nap. Chil­dren are more know­ing than we give them credit for. As a child, and now an adult with an over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tion, not com­mu­ni­cat­ing what’s go­ing on is the worst thing you can do to me. To my mind obliv­ion is never sweet; I will al­ways as­sume calamity.

Re­cently my daugh­ter was up­set be­cause a boy had been mean to her. I’ve come across this boy be­fore and have al­ways as­sumed his home life is an un­happy one. Try to be un­der­stand­ing, I said, he’s not as lucky as you. Or, she said, maybe he’s just an ar­se­hole.


The trou­ble with print­ing my thoughts is some­times I must eat my words. Con­trary to what I wrote last week, life has been so hec­tic lately that sev­eral times I’ve found my­self the par­ent who is clue­less about the specifics of my chil­dren’s ac­tiv­i­ties. Katy, who says she is nor­mally this par­ent, put it per­fectly. “When I get to a school event, it’s of­ten to­tally by the seat of my pants. Work will be on my mind. I’m on call and I’ll be watch­ing my phone … To even be there at all feels like such a hard thing, and although I’m or­gan­ised in my work life and run the so­cial cal­en­dars of ev­ery­one in the house … although I’m there, I prob­a­bly didn’t read the email … I don’t mean to sound whiny. Just tired. And to say as a mother who doesn’t bring her best or­gan­i­sa­tion to school events, it’s not be­cause I’m spon­ta­neous, it’s the op­po­site. I am al­ways the one ask­ing the other moth­ers what’s go­ing on, what were we sup­posed to bring, etc. And I’m al­ways grate­ful and ap­pre­ci­ate the ex­tra en­ergy these other peo­ple seem to have.”

Some­where along the line we have taken ... the Ro­man­tics’ idea of chil­dren be­ing closer to God, and we have placed them on a pedestal. One I’m not sure is al­ways de­served.

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