There was a report a few months ago from The Children’s Society about how happy our children are. Unsurprisingly, the children in the UK are about as happy as a Morrissey lyric. And I’m thinking, well, duuuh. Is anyone really all that surprised?
Part of me wants to ignore this sort of thing. It’s a panic-article, written to kneejerk us into wringing our hands. It’s Waaahbait. It’s not great to know that our children are unhappy, but I don’t think that in itself, it is cause for alarm. Young people will get unhappy sometimes. And you know, sometimes (not always, but occasionally) it benefits us to be miserable once in a while. It’s like boredom (or alcohol).
I actually think kids could do with a bit more boredom in their lives. And a little bit of misery is actually quite good for us in the long run. It inspires us, it drives us, it makes us who we are. Too much of it is a problem, sure, but on the whole let’s not punch ourselves in the balls about it, unless it is excessive. It is completely unrealistic to expect people to be happy all the time anyway. Right?
But if the report is true, then we need to have a conversation about why our children are not happy, and I think we parents only have ourselves to blame for letting things get so far out of control. Thanks, stupid parents. You’ve bred Goths. Well done.
Personally, I think our children would be much happier if they didn’t have such massive expectations shoved on them. Not just from parents and teachers – and that’s a whole other issue – but from the media-driven culture we live in.
Just look at the iconography and imagery used in adverts. Children are now expected to be:
- Tech savvy
- Environmentally friendly
- Completely and totally uber-cool in every way
- Listen to the right music, which is marketed very aggressively at children. Young people should not – in theory – like any music which is not deemed to be “current”, or music that is off-mainstream (yeah? Well my kid likes Kate Bush, which is neither current, nor particularly mainstream by any modern standards. Fuck you)
- Wear the right clothes
- Have the right consoles (all of them at once)
- Play the right computer games
- Own phones and tablets and apps. There is nothing in itself wrong with children having these things, and using them in moderation, but I do question the notion that to not have them at all is something to be ashamed of
- Work hard in school. Harder than they’re working at the moment? Really??
- Be “individual” (but not too individual. Non-conformity is something to be ashamed of, after all)
- Be Sporty/Active/Fit (whether they want to be or not)
- To have the right opinions about politics (but don’t think about it too much otherwise kids will start asking questions later on in life, and we can’t have that, can we?)
- To be passionate about their interests (but heaven forfend that they might become a geek, a swot, or a nerd; and if our kids do become any of those things, once they take their glasses off, they have to look hugely attractive)
- Well-informed (at least with regard to pop-culture references, and celebrity news; it also wouldn’t hurt to have an awareness of climate change issues, and what’s immediately going on in the current Middle-East crisis, but again, too much curiosity as to how these things came about is very wrong because it will lead to awkward questions later)
- Be au fait with all current slang terms In other words, not so much groovy and fab, and not even rad or wicked, but sick. And they’d probably have to use the word “dude”.
- Be thin (Fat baaaad. Of course, obesity is a health risk, I’m not pretending it’s not. But children are told through every insidious means possible, that even being a normal/average size is deemed too much)
- Be attractive (Ugly bad)
- Be comfortable in your own skin (hang on: fat’s bad, right? Ugly’s bad, yeah? Looking not-as-awesome-as-this-Disney-perfect-child is bad? Tha fuk…?)
- Look good in make-up (if you’re a girl. Boys aren’t included in this, although it might be a good thing if they were. Nowt wrong wi’ make up on a lad. It’s practically a legal requirement for any male rockstar worth his salt to slap on a bit of slap these days)
- Play with the right toys
- Be competitive with one another
- To not be bullied
- Be assertive
- If you’re a girl, you must be “spunky” or “feisty” (but not “have strong opinions” or “be *too*assertive”, because that’s neither attractive or acceptable), according to The Media
- If you’re a boy, you must be “confident” and “outgoing” (woe betide you if you are insecure, introverted and not terribly sociable. Bad you.)
- Be imaginative
- Be aspirational (‘cos one day, the economy of your country relies on the hope that you’re going to want to buy shit, yeah?)
- To admire non-conformity in all its guises (whilst still being expected to be well-behaved, politically on-message, dressing in current fashions, and appropriately well-mannered)
- Be sexually aware at a frighteningly young age (but not actually be told about the physical aspect of sex in any meaningful way, you’re expected to pick that up from the internet. And certainly not be told about the emotional consequences of sex)
- Be exposed to the world’s problems and all the dark corners of the internet, and be aware of how to deal with it when it rears up in their faces (but not to instruct and support parents who might be affected by their child encountering these evils. It seems children are left to deal with it on their own, while parents are not given advice on how to help their kid through the internet, nor are they given any advice on being communicative with their kids about internet activities).
- Be rebellious (This is the stupidest one of all, and one that blows wide open the contradictions at the heart of society. All our pop-culture and mass-media heroes are rebels and non-conformists who do not adhere to rules and are iconoclastic. For example: Han Solo, Sherlock Holmes, Simon Cowell, Jim Morrison, Batman, James Dean, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter, Donald Duck, Donald Trump, Dennis the Menace, Elvis Presley, Rorshach from Watchmen, Boris Johnson, Johnny Rotten, Bart Simpson, Homer Simpson, Madonna, Iron Man, Ozzy Osbourne, the Mythbusters, Jeremy Clarkson, Bugs Bunny, and practically every TV detective ever – because nobody ever wants to watch a TV show about an orthodox detective who respects the chain of command and does things strictly by the book, right? So kids, work hard, be conscientious in all things, be yourself, conform, be cool, listen to the music you’re told to listen to, wear the right clothes, spend money, have things… but at the same time, REJECT NORMALITY! Make up your fucking mind, society)
Worst of all, adverts and TV tells them that if they don’t follow these instructions and more, they’ll be miserable.
Poor kids. They must be exhausted with all the weight of expectation on their shoulders, and having to live up to all these pressures.
There’s a lot of fear involved in convincing children that they need THIS over THAT. Fear is used to convince both parents and kids that without these things (mostly intrinsically useless consumer things, or philosophies that don’t contradict a consumerist and capitalist society), they will suffer in some way, either intellectually or socially. This notion is a nonsense. We know we can live perfectly happily without all of these things. Sometimes the TV and films tell us this.
Kids are overwhelmed by all of this contradictory, dissonant information, which is all on top of whatever happens to them in their home lives. And some kids – frighteningly close to all of us, in fact, possibly even in your neighbourhood – have to contend with abusive/distant/alcoholic/divorcing/neglectful/unemployed parents, or competing with older/younger siblings, or the personal chaos and embarrassment of growing up, and in some cases, having to care for a loved one, AS WELL AS having to live up to society’s expectations to be thin/cool/assertive/aspirational etc, AS WELL AS having to deal with school and peers.
I’ve spent the last week or so watching the adverts on children’s TV. At time of writing, it’s less than a month to Christmas, so the merchandising industry is at full throttle. All of the children in the ads are sparkling examples of perfection (teeth, hair, body shape, no glasses). My daughter is being assailed from every channel (apart from the BBC) with images of tiny little ubermensches. At some point – not yet, thank Buddha, but it won’t be long now – my daughter is going to start to believe that she is not quite as sparkly as those girls in the adverts. Maybe she’ll think she’s not thin enough (she’s not fat, not even remotely), or that her hair is not as lustrous (it looks great when combed), or that she’s not got the right clothes (I actually like her idiosyncratic dress sense – she’s like a tiny hipster with her crochet hats, her leggings-and-skirts combo, fairy wings, and her ability to wear sweater, t-shirt and blouse, but not necessarily wearing them in the traditional layering order). I dread the day when she starts to compare herself to the girls on TV, because I’ll then have to comfort her, and tell her over and over again that it doesn’t matter. Frankly, I don’t see why I should have to. Not that she’ll believe me, of course. Telly is far more persuasive than I can ever be. There are companies and individuals who have become very rich on the backs of worried parents and self-conscious children, and they do their best to convince all of us that having pointless ephemeral crap is important.
And the music that is currently peddled for teenagers is either bright, life-affirming, pap performed by stupendously and unrealistically attractive people (which would make anyone depressed) who need a computer algorithm to help them sing in tune; or miserable, obnoxious, shouty, non-conformist, solipsistic wailing by bands who have been chosen for their marketable looks, and the ability to conform to the demands set by their record company. Not only that, but they’ve successfully and cynically fitted themselves comfortably in with the current trends in music, whilst singing songs about bucking the system. Hey kids, your non-conformist music is made by people who have conformed in every single way. Now isn’t THAT ironic?
It’s no wonder 12-year olds are unhappy. They’re assailed from all sides by all this screeching, primary-colour bullshit for years before they set out on the puberty rollercoaster. They’re told from the start that they are not as perfect as the images that are presented to them. And while they are bombarded with messages about being happy and loving yourself and being individual, there’s no actual instruction on HOW.
It gets worse. Once our kids grow into adults, they’ll realise that all the expectations they had foisted upon them by society at large (not to mention those expectations from family, school and peers with which they had to grow up with) count for fuck all once they hit their twenties, and are spat into employment and adulthood and they discover that reality just does not measure up.
You know what? Maybe we should encourage the media to stop telling children what they want. Maybe we parents should take more of an interest in what children need, and let’s do this BEFORE we consider what things they should want. And let’s be adults about it, write them down in a list and find out the cost price of how to get our children the things they need to be happy. I think we’d be surprised how little it would cost us financially.
And if we were to follow the list, we could work out what it would take to cut us free from the industry that exists to distract our children from what would really make them content.
Now that would be something to be pleased about.