When my eldest son was 11, he came home from school one day, and announced that he was the only person in his class who did not have a mobile phone. “Don’t be ridiculous,” we retorted, “of course you’re not the only person: lots of 11- and 12-year-olds don’t have a phone of their own.”
How wrong can you be? After a quick check of other parents, we soon discovered that he was indeed one of only two who were being kept in the Dark Ages by wilfully negligent and terminally uncool parents. We bought him a mobile.
This story illustrates two points that ring out loud and clear from the evidence summary of the Children’s Society Good Childhood Inquiry about children’s lifestyle: first, the way parents are left behind by the rapidly changing world their children now inhabit; and, second, the enormous pressure from friends and high finance to keep up with the latest trends — the new mobile, X-Box game, designer jeans, and so on. There are so many pressures on young people today to consume and conform.
They are targeted by advertising at every turn, and there is some evidence to suggest that mental-health issues are rising among them. Yet the really remarkable idea that the inquiry’s evidence on lifestyle seems to suggest is actually a tribute to young people’s resilience.
Yes, the advertisers have children in their sights, knowing that pester power is good for many an ill-judged purchase; yes, drugs and diet, teenage pregnancy, obesity, lack of exercise, and “keeping up with the clones” all create huge and fearful pressure. But, somehow, the great majority of young people do take it in their stride — and are as bemused by parental angst as every generation before them.
It is really good to see in this material that, alongside the helpful analysis of the pressures that young people face today, there is a vivid testimony of their essential, confident, goodness, as they navigate through the perils and opportunities of 21st-century Britain.
So they watch more TV than us, and probably spend a great deal more time on the computer, but they are also rightly scornful of the mess that we have made. I watch my son do his homework on the computer. At the same time, he is chatting with friends all over the country, downloading and uploading music, and sharing it with others.
I know a young girl who searches the net to buy clothes that are not made in sweatshops. Others form groups in their school to combat the effects of climate change. They are media-savvy; largely immune to the hard sell; can spot hypocrisy at 30 paces; know how to dance; and play their music very loud.
It is still hard to be different, and many do not realise how subtly the advertisers manipulate them, but there is something glorious in the lifestyle of the young that makes me believe that Jesus would be just as likely to pull a teenager from the crowd as a little child to show the rest of us what the Kingdom looks like.
In this report, a ten-year-old defiantly proclaims that “People should stop following the trends, and have their own style.” What young person in history has not said that? It is their birthright, and, though they express it differently and in the language of a culture that is second-hand to us, they still possess that precious self-righteousness that believes the world can be changed. I hope never to become so cynical that I will not be thrilled by the newness of a generation inheriting the world, trying to shape it afresh, and believing things can be better.
It is our task — we adults who have created this culture, and we Christians who have a vision of what a reordered world might look like — to do all that we can to provide young people with the affirmation they need. More than anything else, young people need to know they are loved. This is the essential foundation stone upon which secure lives are built, and without which no amount of carrot or stick will make much difference.
Of course, we must vigilantly police the super-highway; we must remove all that is truly exploitative or harmful; we must provide the five pieces of fruit and veg a day, and everything else that is needed to demonstrate that there is more to life than becoming a loyal consumer.
Yet, if we have got the foundation right, and paid proper attention to paying attention, then, as young people inherit the world, we can get out of the way — confident that they will see it clearly, and, rather than perpetuate the mess we have made, want to clean it up.
If, in home and church, school and community, we give ourselves to the spadework of sound loving, then we can trust young people to make the best of the world that we are bequeathing them. After all, the most exciting and innovative buildings have the strongest foundations.
The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Bishop of Reading.
For more information, see: www.goodchildhood.org.uk.