Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Gen X, Y, Z - now what?

I wrote in a post a while back that I didn't know what to call the current generation. You can read that post here. Today I found an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald in which the writer dubs them 'The I Generation'. In her article, I want out of Generation I, Lynn Van Der Wagen tackles the issue from the perspective of the classroom, as a teacher. I would encourage my readers to follow the link and read the article - it's not long - before continuing here, otherwise some contextual misunderstandings may arise.
Firstly, I have to say that I chuckled all the way through Van Der Wagen's article. She exercises an edgy, sarcastic style that is hugely entertaining, and I'm very sure that anyone who has anything to do with today's teenagers would probably have found a similar level of enjoyment from her very pointed analysis. 

However, underneath the sarcasm and wry wit, there is a very real concern, with which I identify. I tutor teenagers and I live with one - and there's an awful lot of reality in this article. It's not a particularly pretty reality either. It's not just the current crop of teens either, my boys belong a generation back, and there are elements of what is described that can be attributed to Gen Z too. Back when they were 'Gen I's' age, I was teaching other Gen Z's and receiving assignments that were - as is described in the article - all too often pastiches of digital cut and pastes from websites, rather than the product of considered research and evaluation of the  source material from the reading lists I had so very carefully assembled for them. It worried me at the time, and I told them I'd automatically deduct marks if there were no books in their bibliography lists at the end of their papers. My sense then was that it was the thin end of the wedge. I didn't have any sense of that thought being prophetic. However, now I have students in high school whose first port of call - in front of me too, when we're working together - is Wikipedia... It's pure laziness - and I tell them so.

One of my students goes to a school which has an agreement with a number of university and industry based libraries, so that the students are able to access books and journals as well as online resources that exceed the scope of most school libraries. Does this student avail himself of this awesome resource? Of course not. That would take time, and effort. Much more time than leaving the assignment until the last minute and waiting for me to arrive for a tutoring session, then in a ridiculously thinly camouflaged fashion, sitting at his computer waiting for prompts from me on what to write... "What did you say? Can you say it again?" - you don't have to be too smart to realise he's waiting for me to dictate the text of his paper...and I'm far from stupid. 

What I don't get - and this is a characteristic that Van Der Wagen didn't mention - is why this batch of kids continue to set themselves up so clumsily. I watch it all the time. And it comes back to what Van Der Wagen said so succinctly:
The sheer weight of their viewpoints is growing exponentially as parents and teachers alike are counselled to hold a young person's opinion in the highest regard.
Current thinking in educational circles focuses on students' independence and empowering unwavering self-belief.
By 'empowering' this generation to believe in themselves implicitly, and expect others to 'hold their opinion in the highest regard' are we not depriving them of opportunity to think critically? To consider their opinions and potential effects before they open their mouths? To value substantiating information and actually be concerned about getting things right, to the best of their ability? 

What I see all too often is a certain element of bravado and swagger that is probably a necessary accessory to enable them to maintain their deliverance of a lot of hot air, followed by an enormous effort to put themselves in a position of humorous superiority by joking about it if their bubble is pricked by someone who isn't prepared to indulge them. Worse, if you get them on a bad hair day, you're quite likely to get a mouthful about how all you ever do is try to take them down, and what do you know anyway...?

One of my colleagues said to me a few weeks back, when we were discussing this topic (he has teenage kids) that in his opinion, the destiny of 'Gen I' was going to be failure - in much the same way as family businesses can all too often go under when generations who weren't part of building the business inherit. My colleague's theory was that 'Gen I' have been too much indulged to have an understanding of long-term, hard endeavour, and sticking to things until they succeed. They're too accustomed to the instant gratification of things at the click of a mouse, last minute arrangements, making excuses and not being accountable. It will be their children who pick up, because they will have to find a different path... It's a scary proposition.

I do want to clarify one thing before I wrap up. I like these kids. They're very charming, and the ones I deal with are all very bright. They have piles and piles of potential. But I see so much of it going to waste, and I worry about their future when they don't have people standing by them who are there to continue to build them up because they lack the ability to do it for themselves.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Rules and regulations

I've been mulling a bit about this blog. It's easy to tell stories, to comment on what's in the press about parenting, and to come across - and I hope I don't - as someone who thinks they know it all. I don't. I know how it was for me when I was growing up - what I struggled with from my parents and what I can look back on with the clarity of hindsight and see as good commonsense. I know what I tried to do as a parent with my kids - and I know that some of it they see very differently to the way I see it. 

So, I  was thinking about the basics, the things that underpinned what I did, the way I did it, and why I did it - and I'll qualify that with the information that I also did it largely on my own as a sole parent. Even when partnered I was, largely, parenting solo - and that does make a difference. When you don't have someone backing you up, the terms of engagement have to be different - you can't play good cop/bad cop by yourself!! Seriously, a united front of two like-minded parents is something that kids might try to resist, but ultimately will respect pretty quickly - just as they will, equally quickly, play two parents off each other when they discern that said parents are not in agreement about something.
My basic parenting style was based on rules. The premise was pretty simple - there were a bunch of rules that I created that were intended to provide a clear structure of what people could and couldn't do, and what was expected of everyone in the household so that living together was manageable. Breaking the rules meant uncomfortable consequences - and the reality of that was, often the consequences were uncomfortable for everyone. They evolved over time as the boys got older and were more aware of the rights/responsibility equation, and they had to be something I could stand by without getting myself into hot water, because backing down wasn't an option.

The basics were - in no particular order, and I'm sure I'll forget some of them! It's been a while - and it's only now with a teen in the house again that I'm coming up hard against the results of a different style of parenting that I'm being made aware of them.
  1. It it isn't yours, don't touch it.
  2. If you use something, put it away again when you've finished.
  3. If you make a mess, clean it up.
  4. If you're going somewhere, leave a note so I know where you are when I get home to an empty house - this was pre mobile phones...
  5. Do not walk into a room talking - wait and see what's going on before you barge in with whatever it is you're wanting/needing.
  6. Don't yell from another room - if you want someone, go find them.
  7. Change out of school clothes straight away when you get home and put them in the wash.
  8. If you want some say in what's for dinner, be involved in making it. If you weren't and it just landed in front of you with no input on your part, the only thing you are allowed to say is, "thank you."
  9. Try everything on your plate - even if you think you don't like it. Your tastes change as you mature and you won't know if you don't try.
  10. Say hello when you walk through the door, and goodbye when you're leaving.
  11. Say please and thank you.
  12. When you're asked to do something, just do it - don't argue. 
  13. If you're angry about something, that's fine. If you want to talk about it then talk, if you don't that's also fine - but take it to your room and don't dump on people.
  14. Do not go into each other's bedrooms uninvited - people's space is to be respected.
  15. Do not interrupt people - wait for a pause and say, "excuse me." This includes interrupting people when they're on the phone.
  16. Don't just get up and leave the table when you're finished. Wait until everyone is finished their meal and then ask to be excused.
I'm sure there are more, but by now it should be pretty obvious what forms the basis of these rules.  They're all about courtesy, manners. It's something I see less and less. I do understand that styles of communication have changed, but I don't see why that should mean that basic good manners should go down the drain. 

My kids aren't perfect - let me be the first person to make that point. Neither am I. There were arguments about any and all of these rules at various times. However, one thing I can say about them - even when they're being distant young men, as is the current situation - is that I could, and did, take them anywhere and one consistent piece of feedback I got about them was how polite they were. They would sit at other people's tables and manfully wade through whole plates of food they didn't like without a murmur. I'd hear all about it later - at length - but they never embarrassed their hosts by complaining about the food. They would also thank said hosts for their meal. 

I could relate vast numbers of war stories about the breaking of these rules and subsequent consequences in all sorts of gory detail. But I'm not going to today. My point today is that a lot of parenting is about conditioning our kids - deliberately or unwittingly. They follow our lead. If we speak to them with courtesy, they will respond in kind. If we yell at them all they time, they will learn that that's normal and they will yell at us and everyone else all the time. If we let them interrupt us all the time, they will assume that's acceptable and they will interrupt anyone else they come into contact with. It's pretty straightforward cause and effect.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Growing pains

This image was posted on Facebook by an acquaintance the other day and it cracked me up, for obvious reasons.
But it also added to a train of thought I've been following so I'll try and pull the random fragments together into something reasonably cohesive.

All of us who have kids have been here. Don't you hate the supermarket checkouts with all those brightly coloured goodies right at kid eye-level height? Don't you hate knowing that it's almost a given that when you've finally finished fighting your way around the supermarket - you had a list, didn't you? And there were more than a few 'discussions' about items not on that list, were there not? - that you will face the final battle that could be prolonged my any number of factors - the length of the queue, the efficiency of the checkout person, how many kids you have with you, how determined you are, and how - equally - determined the kids are, and how proof you are against the condemnation in the looks of those around you...

It's a particularly nasty form of warfare on their part. If you've caved before in public situations, they know that they have you over a barrel. Sooner or later, they know you'll give in just to shut them up. Because they don't think so far ahead, they'll look at that short term gain as having achieved something big. It's manipulation of a most primitive type. Trouble is, it teaches them that the way to get stuff is to make a fuss, and keep fussing until they get what they want - and that if it's a good, loud public fuss, they have a much better chance of coming out on top. It teaches them to be tyrants...

But... Let's go behind the scenes quietly for a moment to the grown up back stage area or this little drama... What's really going on in your head? What are the things you'd really like to say to your awful, screaming monster, and to the people who are being so sanctimonious in their condemnation - who, by sheer good fortune on this particular day might be shopping solo...? Have you ever contemplated just leaving the shopping and the screaming child and walking away? Have you screamed back? Have you - and you don't have to admit to this in a public comment if it's something you don't want to own up to - smacked them in public (earning even more condemnation, of course)? Do you then head home, with smug child, thinking murderous thoughts, knowing you have all the shopping to put away, meals to think about, washing you forgot to hang out earlier that will have to be washed again, only to face the next battle as soon as you walk in the door - whatever it might be?

Hold those thoughts.... I have a cross over here from my other blog - and if you're a reader I invite you to go look here - I just read Chocolat for the first time. Lovely, lovely book - but you can read more of my thoughts on it on the other blog. Early in, I found part of a paragraph that caught my attention,
... Children are born wild, I know. The best I can hope for is a little tenderness, a seeming docility. Beneath the surface the wildness remains, savage and alien.
We are conditioned to love our families, particularly that we must love our children. And we do. We do love them - it's deeply instinctive, and almost impossible not to love something that is so totally dependent, and that you are biologically programmed to care for. That doesn't always mean we like them.  It doesn't mean we don't sometimes look at them and wish, for an instant, that we could walk away sometimes and just not have to deal with whatever it is at any particularly nasty moment. 

That internal conflict between loving our children and sometimes disliking them intensely never really leaves us. For many of us, it's something we struggle with, especially if we've been conditioned to be 'nice' people and always look for explanations and justifications for other people's behaviour. 

One of my boys was a public tantrum thrower. The other was always rigidly in control - no one was going to see him lose it in public. There'd been enough of his  trantrums as he was growing up for me to learn the vital walk away tactic - but always safely at home. I just had to leave the room. There wasn't much profit for him in treating the empty room to his tantrum, so they usually stopped relatively quickly. The other one was a different beastie altogether and his supermarket dramas started early. I did walk away from him once - left him on the floor in the aisle, and kept going. I was in a complete state that someone would take him, or report me - but his shrieks continued as I made my way further through the aisles and I realised that no one in their right minds would want him like that and I was stuck. I actually abandoned the shopping that day. Went back and got him, left my trolley full of groceries, picked him up and tucked him under my arm and bolted, head down, so as not to have to face anyone, and headed home. I don't remember what I fed them - it was a big shop I was doing. But, give in and give him what he wanted and reward the tantrum - no way.

He was given to fighting for everything - never seemed to occur to him that there were alternative ways to achieve things. He'd come out of his corner fists flailing every time. My moment of clarity, and release, came one day when he was having another go, again in a supermarket, about something he wanted that he wasn't going to get. I looked at him, his face twisted in anger, frustration, and a certain amount of calculation and something in me suddenly shifted. He wasn't a toddler any more. He'd reached the messy middle primary school stage and was  tall and solid - too big to just pick up and exit with... But, he was also too big now for people to just blame me. They were looking at him, not me. He was too big not to know how to behave properly, and the looks I was getting were sympathetic. There was no point at the time trying to say anything to him, but I had that conversation with him later when he'd calmed down.

There was a period in my life, as an adult, when many of the things from my childhood came back to haunt me - it was time to do the work of dealing with my ghosts. It was a difficult time, particularly for my mother. After she died I found a letter she'd written to me during that time, but never posted. She wrote about her pain in not being able to reach me, not being able to talk to me, not knowing how to get past my anger. I wish she could have said all of it, but I knew at the time I'd put up huge walls round myself. I was angry. I was blaming her for many things. As parents, we're going to hit periods of time when we clash with our kids and they're going to be angry with us, and maybe shut us out. But, one of the biggest lessons we all have to learn, and one that is possibly the hardest to teach our kids, is that ultimately, we as individuals are responsible for ourselves. Other people aren't responsible for us. We can't blame other people our whole lives for the things that we don't like or don't have. At some point we have to stand up and go fix them and go get them ourselves. 

Saying no to our kids is the first step in teaching that lesson. Because it's not all about them. We hold our children in our hearts, but they're not ours to own, any more than we are theirs to be constantly at their beck and call. That wild thing - that's in all of us - is the essence of who we are as individual people. It needs to learn how to get along with the other wild things within its sphere - and then beyond. We shouldn't trample on it - and I don't believe saying no does that - but we do need to teach it not to trample all over everyone else.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Democracy or Dictatorship?

I'm picking up on a paragraph in my last post that was part of a stream of thought that didn't quite develop in that post. It's been niggling away at me though, and thinking through many conversations with friends and family members over the years, I thought it was worth a shot at trying to put it out there in some kind of cohesive form.

Current international events have many of us watching with some anxiety, as many countries struggle economically, politically and socially. The same colleague with whom I was discussing democracy the other day made some interesting comments about the European economic crisis - pointing out that Greece, Spain and Italy, all of whom are in serious financial crisis, are all countries who have experienced civil war within more recent history. As is usual in these cases, the conflict came about as part of the struggle to overthrow an oppressive regime and replace it with something that would offer people, among other things, freedom of choice about how they lived their lives and how their country was run. We're watching it in Syria now, and the question many of us ask while we watch the escalating violence is, "Who is coming after the previous leaders to take on the task of rebuilding the country, and will they be any better?"

And I'm discussing international politics on this blog, why? Some years ago, and I can't for the life of me think where, I stumbled across something - a book I suspect - where I read something that made its way into discussions with friends at the time who had kids of a similar age to mine. I don't know about those of you who may be reading this, but my generation of parents were saturated with 'how to' books on parenting at an unprecedented level. My mother and godmother had two books that they shared - there were six of us growing up together under the watchful eye of these two quite remarkable women, closely enough that to this day, our relationships are characterised by the kinds of dysfunctional markers common to siblings, rather than of two sets of children belonging to a pair of close friends. One of them was Dick Grantly-Reid's Natural Childbirth - more my mother's book, as my godmother's kids were all adopted, and another one that I know was called Ages and Stages, but I don't know who wrote it. A quick search online just yielded something with the same title, but it's a recent publication. Mum and my godmother referenced the latter book constantly as we were growing up - consulting with each other as they grappled with each new stage - often overlapping a different stage simultaneously with one of the other children, as we were all fairly close in age.

Ultimately, we grew up with a healthy respect for the authority of both these women, and all of us felt we'd grown up with, effectively, two mothers. My home turf was the inner western suburbs in Sydney, and later small town country South Australia. My 'siblings' were on ten acres of land in the foothills of The Blue Mountains - where my end of the family spent countless weekends and school holidays, and my brother and I spent a term - going to school there - when Mum had pneumonia. The rules were very simple, regardless of which mother dished them out or where we were - do what you're told, or there will be trouble. Go anywhere near the dams in the bottom paddock without a grown up (they were very deep and out of sight of the house) and there will be trouble. Ride the horses without permission and supervision, and there will be trouble. Answer back, and there will be trouble... You get the picture. Trouble, in my house meant a large wooden spoon. At my godmother's, it was a large tortoiseshell hairbrush. I have to say, none of us were actually on the receiving end of either of them very much at all - the threat of both was sufficient.

We grew up in a dictatorship. A benign and loving environment, but a dictatorship nevertheless. Food was put in front of us at regular intervals, and we were expected to eat it without complaint. If we chose not to eat it - for whatever reason, and none of them were granted discussion time - then we went hungry. Up at the farm, that wasn't sensible - we were out doors most of the time, happily running wild - within strict parameters - and usually starving through expenditure of huge amounts of energy. Our days ran, roughly, like this: being hauled out of bed and sat at the kitchen table in various states of sleepiness in front of a bowl of cereal (porridge in winter, weet bix in summer) and toast. We were then sent back to make our beds - the big ones helping the little ones - and to get dressed. We were then - after hearing again what we were not to do (or there'd be trouble) - packed off outside with the border collie who accompanied us everywhere and, like Nana in Peter Pan, pulled us away from places we weren't meant to be, and with instructions to stay out of trouble and not show our faces at the door again unless we needed the bathroom or someone was bleeding - until the bread van came with the day's delivery, which we were expected to collect from the box at the end of the driveway and bring to the house. Six hungry ragamuffins then waited at the door until large platefuls of sandwiches were handed out with apples and bananas, and instructions to bring the plates back - and then back to the great outdoors. As soon as darkness began to fall, we were expected back inside, to be lined up and shuttled through a sequence of baths, then pyjamas, dinner and bed. There was no television - my godmother didn't buy one until all her kids had finished school. We had one, but my mother turned it on for us for selected programs of her choice. 

I have to say though - it was a halcyon childhood. We built a raft and sailed it on the home dam (in view of the house and where we swam). Not for very long, it wasn't very good and sank in the middle rather suddenly! There was one horse - a small Australian Stock Horse mare, the only horse we could ride any time, and on whom we were all taught. There was a small patch of natural bush in the paddock beyond the tables and we bashed our way into the middle of that to make a camp; building huts with fallen tree limbs and old feed sacks from the stable (there was trouble over the feed sacks, which we took without permission). We asked for, and received permission - after the mothers had been down and cleared the site properly - to build a proper campfire, and they then gave us a frying pan and sausages for our lunch. We built a corral for Trinket, the horse, so that it was a 'proper' camp, with a horse... The corral was made of leftover binder twine from the bales of hay, strung from bush to bush - that remarkable mare, helped along with generous, regular handfuls of lucerne, never attempted to break out! That one summer holiday, we spent all our time there when the weather was fine, taking our sandwiches there when we didn't have sausages.

In the city, we didn't have as much physical freedom. We could roam the street and have the run of the vacant lot at the top of the street. We built forts in the trees up there and had grand wars. We played rugby league with mismatched teams of boys and girls of all sizes and abilities. We lined up at the top of the hill with a motley collection of bikes, trikes, scooters and billy carts and then raced each other to the end - how none of us wasn't badly injured is beyond me when I look back on it now. As it happens, the afternoon before our belongings were all packed up to transport across the country when we moved interstate, I took my scooter for a last ride - no wild careering down the hill, just a last ride on my street - and took a header over the handle bars down into the footpath below the actual street. I was winded and pretty bashed around and my mother had the lovely task of getting a bruised and scraped nine year old through two days of train travel covered in plasters!

There are many more stories, but the bottom line is that we grew up within a strict set of rules that, in their specifics, were adapted as we grew older, but the spirit of them was unchanged. Our parents were in charge, we did what we were told - or there was trouble. And trouble there was. The wooden spoon and the hairbrush took a back seat to increasingly restrictive consequences as we got older and our parent's perceived sense of the possible dangers we might face rose to greater levels. Did we break the rules - of course we did. Were there consequences - oh, yes! Did they leave us with terrible scars. No, they didn't. There were other things in our childhoods that left all of us with a variety of different issues - but not that one.

By the time I had my kids, there were many, many more books and teaching styles had changed too. A common thrust in the books and at daycare, kindergarten and school was the 'rights' of the child. My kids got taught at a scarily young age that they had rights - at an age when they had scant hope of grasping the reciprocal concept of responsibilities. Kids should have choices - was another - from what they ate for breakfast (even if that meant - theoretically - if you had six kids and they all wanted something different they should have it, or risk them feeling oppressed, which might damage them for life), to what they wore each day (how I LOVED school days and the school uniform!), to what time they got up and went to bed and everything in between. I remember a conversation I had with No.2 son's class teacher once when No.2 was about nine and acting out in class - we were talking about his routine, and this teacher was absolutely gobsmacked when I told him No.2 was in bed with the light out by 7.30. He wanted to know how I achieved that, because his kids were still up and running around until 10-10.30... I told him that I couldn't afford to have either of my kids so worn out and overtired that they were more of a handful than two very bright, healthy boys can be, as well as having no down time myself in the evenings to get things done for the next day - or just to veg out - so it wasn't a matter of how I got it done, because there was no argument. That was bedtime - and any arguments from No. 2 about it - particularly through the week - meant consequences. I had a repertoire of consequences that impacted on them quite effectively. I ran into all sorts of trouble with many of my friends - who, while deploring my fairly draconian methods, were constantly telling me stories where they'd been engaged in a massive, emotionally wearing battle with their children over something that, to my way of thinking, just shouldn't have been an issue.

Democracies, as my colleague so rightly argued, work effectively when all the members of said community are fully aware of both their rights and responsibilities and are committed to contributing their share so that everyone's needs and rights are met, and there is a sustainable balance. Families are small communities - particularly these days, when so few of us live close enough to our extended families to have the support of many generations of hands and experience as we make out way through the maze of parenthood. But, families, particularly nuclear families, are not a group of equals. There are - if we're lucky - two adults, but sometimes one, who have/has a mighty load of responsibilities - financial, emotional, domestic, professional, and countless others. Then there are the kids, who require love, care, time, attention, and countless other time-consuming and energy-demanding things. Is it an equal balance of work on each side? Of course not. Little children can't, nor should, be expected to shoulder adult loads - they have to grow up and learn how to be adults before they can do that. In turn that means that they shouldn't be the ones running the show when it comes to how people's energy is taken up in the daily transactions between family members. We've all seen people we care about being held ransom by a child's behaviour. I've been through it myself - battling as I was in a social environment very different to that of my mother's, attempting to parent old-style.

Despite various choices that I made, that we all make, that weren't perhaps the best ones I could have made that impacted variously for me and the kids, I don't know that many of the issues they both might have to deal with now stem from growing up in an environment where there were rules, consequences when the rules were broken, where they weren't asked constantly what they wanted to do, wear, eat, watch, and where they heard the word 'no' - a lot, sometimes. No.1 son, after watching some of his mates spinning out of control in their mid teens actually thanked me a few years later, for being a dragon. He says that for a lot of those friends, they didn't know where the fences were, there weren't limits around them - consequently, they kept pushing and pushing to find them, and the results weren't always very safe. 

Did I get it all right? Of course not. None of us do. Are there things I wish my parents had done differently? Yes. And do I think that there are things my boys wish I'd done differently? Yes to that too. The thing is, all of us parent the way we do because it's what we have to work with at the time. The choices we make are sometimes based on what we experienced as children - either to do it similarly or to depart radically in another direction. Regardless of those choices, there are times we get it wrong, and that's inevitable. We're dealing with families, people - people who, while we love them, we might not always like very much. That's a messy business sometimes. I think that if we can get our kids to adulthood more or less in one piece and they're capable of looking after themselves and standing on their own two feet, then we've done well. They'll probably have some issues, and some of them might well be with us, but so do we about our parents and our childhoods - because it's part of the human condition. We just tend to focus more on that stuff than generations past, who put more energy into just getting on with stuff... So, don't be afraid to give your inner dragon a voice - rules and limits are reassuring for most kids. It means they know where they are with us, and it gives us a fighting chance of perhaps anticipating roughly where they might attempt to break through so that the learning can happen safely and sustainably - for all of us, parents and children.