An open letter …
On the innocence — or not — of youth
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.