“Summers were longer and hotter” says Rhidian Brook of his memories of his own childhood (in the BBC Radio Four Thought For The Day referred to in Part One of this essay) and I suspect that anyone who is British and over the age of, say, thirty-five, will almost certainly agree with this statement. It isn’t true of course because six weeks is still six weeks and the length of a week is still seven days etc etc; and we have just had the hottest temperatures on record in Britain for late June, July and early August. So summers can’t have been literally hotter and longer when we were younger.
I think this speaks more of a state of mind, the freedom and relaxation I wrote about that can give rise to boredom and challenge the young mind to stretch itself. It speaks of peace and calm, yet excitement and adventure. Sadly, I think this is something that is missing from the experience of a lot of British children today. People I know do more trips, holidays and organised activities that I can remember myself or any of my contemporaries doing when we were young. It’s good that such things exist and are available and some of them are great, but it seems that children do not roam free as much as they used to and so do not have the advantages of boredom that I suggest because they never experience the urgent pang because they are not allowed the space to. These organised activities and “experiences” can be seen to be part of a social discourse that has some negative connotations.
A couple of years ago I read the dispiriting statistic (sorry, i cant rcall the source) that the average age that British children were permitted to play outdoors unsupervised by an adult had risen to fourteen. (Average mind – there will be plenty allowed to play out much younger, but also worryingly some not allowed out until much older.) The social perception of kids that do play out now is that the are a “certain type” of child, the unruly, rough type who have parents that can’t be bothered with them and just send them packing for the day; thus the demonisation of young people continues.
But if this is the case (and Im not saying it is) then why might “nice” people not allow their children out alone? Brook reports that some parents have said that they would “rather have their children bored at home than stressed at school” and that seems fair, but it also suggests a wish to keep them close that may reveal some untoward anxieties. Lots of parents of my acquaintance have a fear of road accidents and this seems appropriate: there are after all far more cars on the roads than when I was a child, they are faster and they are driven by more inept, reckless and selfish drivers as well.
But there is also a rather more lurking and formless fear, that of the Bogeyman. Parents seem very alert to the possibility of “stranger danger”, that their children may be snatched away by some predatory paedophile the moment they take their eyes off them for even a split second when outside the safety of the domestic fortress. This is quite inappropriate because such incidents are very rare (and it is well known that the vast majority of cases of child abuse in general are perpetrated by family members or acquaintances of the victims so strangers are statistically relatively safe) but alas it is not the case that they never happen and it is the sheer fact of the possibility that is enough to plant the seed of fear in a parent’s mind. (It is always a good thing to teach children about stranger danger to allow them to keep themselves safe – but in proportion.)
So this anxiety is not baseless but is often disproportionate, and this is where the negativity comes in. These fears are spread, grown and perpetuated by the media, who love stories about child abuse in general but especially the random cases of abduction and murder because they sell well because they tap into such strong emotions. As I write this I am still shuddering from the horror of the reports of that poor little boy in China who had his eyes gouged out by a female stranger in an apparently pointless act of violence whilst he was innocently playing out. This is a terrible story and I feel for this young boy … but why?
I feel for him because I am human, I have emotions, I am quite sensitive and I am a father so this strikes a number of chords. But why should I be feeling this at all? I mean, why should I even know about it? It makes sense to report it locally because witnesses may come forward and help may be offered to the family. But It happened thousands of miles away in an entirely different country. It does not speak of a local threat that I should be alert to. There is nothing I can do to help the poor boy and his family, much as I might like to. So why has the UK media reported it? Well, it is of a sort of macabre interest because it is so unusual, so random, so extreme, perhaps even so evil. Some people love stuff like this but they could read about the possibilities of human evil in the febrile works of fiction writers, if they so wished.
There will be many parents who will have read about it and felt an immediate strong urge to keep their little ones close and safe. The sheer possibility of something so random is enough to stop people letting them out. It could happen to YOU. So you keep them close, safe, in. But then you have to find them something to do, so you play games, cook together, other domestics. But this becomes stale quite soon, so you start to think of more interesting activities that take you out of the house. You perhaps finally take in one of the repeated adverts for a museum or theme park that bookends your kids’ TV shows and plan a trip to where there are fences that keep kids in and pervs out, where there are staff who are likely to be CRB checked and therefore “safe”, and where you have to pay an entrance fee for these staff and fences and then ice creams, sweets, hot dogs, massive cuddly penguins, rides, activity books etc etc.
This is the crux of it: children playing out, roaming free, do not spend any money and so do not serve the Powers That Be. The six week school holidays thus become a “dead zone” to the insatiable hunger of Business because no-one makes any money off them. But they have found a way to monetize this period through co-opting the media into scaring parents to keep children close and spend more money, as well as regulating their activity more, which satisfies the harrumphings of Daily Mail readers.
Another harbinger of the drawing to a close of the summer halcyon hiatus is the appearance in shop windows of “Back To School” posters. This year they were up before the schools had even finished for the summer. (I have heard reports that some shops even have their “Xmas” wares out already. It is August. We haven’t even had Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes Night yet, the traditional calendar markers for merchandising Christmas. This simply will not do.)
The pressures to spend money never let up, at a time when wages are frozen but living costs spiralling out of control. The fear of boredom has become press-ganged into the service of getting parents to spend more. Aside from the anxiety though, this fear also taps in to the guilt around idleness that stems from the notion that “the devil makes work for idle hands” that provided the moral foundation for the Protestant Work Ethic that was later corrupted into the exploititative greed of the Industrial Revolution that gave rise to the consumerist capitalist discourse of today. Boredom itself neither produces nor consumes but the fear of it and desire to avert it can be ensnared by the discourse.
So once again I find I am echoing Rhidian Brook, when he talks not only of the relaxing and developmental effects of boredom but also the intrinsic value of taking part in activities “that have no measurable outcome.” Children are going to be assessed through their lives. They need some time when they can just be and do without being assessed within a framework that only serves the socio-economic discourse. Ah, but The Powers don’t like such unprogrammed activity because there is a chance that young people will develop thoughts outside of the curriculum, ideas of their own; and the youth may find themselves not so dependent on the discourse and become critical of it, possibly even dissenting, possibly even rebellious. This is not the sort of “character building” my school had in mind – no, that consisted of learning to know your place by having your head mashed on the rugby field to give you a better idea of the inherited nature of privilege and power.
This week the chatterati have been chewing over celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s rant about British youth being rubbish workers, lazy and not willing to work the 80 to 100-hour weeks he had to do to get on in the restaurant business. And this comes on the heels of the story of Moritz Erhardt, the 21 year-old German student intern at Merrill Lynch who died of overwork after a three-day stint without sleep or rest. Aside from the terrible sadness I feel at untimely, pointless and avoidable death of a keen young man, what shocks me most about this story is that Erhardt was praised by his one of his colleagues as “an exemplary employee.” What example is this? That the young chap worked himself to death makes him somehow heroic? I fear that that is exactly the case: as The Guardian reported reported, the banking world has a “long hours culture” and life for interns is extremely competitive; “horror stories” will not put them off.
It seems that knowing what you want out of life is the most important thing here, and letting our children figure that out for themselves has to take precedence over everything else. And to do that they need to know themselves, and we can not do that for them. Time, space, freedom and using boredom to know and challenge their limits will do that. The challenge for us adults is whether or not we can let them.