What's wrong with a bit of responsibility?

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
There she was, 14 years old and sitting on the swing in the playground of the Isle of Wight holiday village, smoking. Nah, she wasn't about to move for a little kid just 'cos we'd asked. She was entitled to respect.

Every time I hear about the Government's respect agenda, I think of her and the contradiction young people like her represent. They have done nothing to deserve the respect they think is their due. They are strangely infantilised. Responsible for nothing, they demand everything.

Let me have a Victor Meldrew moment here. When my father was 14, he was working. Three years later he was called up. No one said he was too young for all that responsibility. His aunt, the oldest of seven, had played a large part in bringing up her younger siblings, and eventually cared for her parents. Most families could offer similar stories of responsibilities shouldered at a young age. Did they swagger about demanding respect? The thought is risible.

No doubt they had it too tough, but today we expect no one to take on any responsibility to speak of until they're in their mid-twenties. We drive them to school until they're about our height. Once there, we try to keep them there until they're 18, long before which many would be happier working, but then find themselves at university because it's the thing to do.

Anything that might be too much for them is done away with - exams that are hard enough to fail, rewards that might single some out as having done better than others, expectations of decent behaviour in playground and classroom.

Their actions have consequences - for them and others - but no one points it out. No wonder we have a generation that never thinks, "If I drink myself senseless on a Friday night, I will end up with cirrhosis or wrap my car with four other 17-year-olds in it round a tree." You wonder how they will ever learn survival skills.

A friend's daughter came home from her new secondary the other day to be told that home economics would be salads and sandwiches because cooking was dangerous. My daughter - in Year 9 - has been assured that they won't be expected to read the whole of Macbeth because it would be too much for them. A neighbour's son has been told that the boy who bullies him is every bit as much a victim as he is.

It's not just school. We do it at home. How many mothers have given their kids a pre-university spag-bol and stir-fry training course because they've never been expected to cook? How many of us have piloted our children across roads for years and find they're off to secondary school without knowing to look both ways? We keep them inside as much as possible and sedate them with the introverted toys of a generation - TV, PlayStation, mobile phone, iPod. It's dangerous cotton-wool - they're never left to use their five senses in the outside world, so they never develop a sixth.

I know a little boy (no father around) whose mother works shifts in a pub, cooking lunches and suppers. At nine, he gets himself up when the alarm clock goes off and makes cereal and toast (no burns) while his mother sleeps. He then walks about a mile to school (no accidents) with the packed lunch he has made (cheese sandwich, jam sandwich, two pieces of fruit). In Cotton-Wool Land, where I live, this is seen as rather shocking. Yet he's cheerful, polite, has good friends and is somewhere near the top of his class. If he grows up into a yob demanding respect while hogging a child's swing, I will personally find this copy of The TES and eat it.

While smoothing their way at school, labelling every bit of rudeness as some pitiable behaviour problem and handing out the coursework that is every cheat's dream-ticket to GCSE success, out in the marketplace we treat them very differently. Here, children who are not allowed to be responsible for themselves and others are sexualised and commercialised - make-up, underwear, music and magazines all push the message that they are old enough to buy and behave like adults. Never having been given any real responsibility, they are soft-shelled prey to the market sharks.

In school and home, children are given an easy-to-digest life, a baby food with no hard bits. Give them responsibility to chew on, and they will develop judgement. Infantilise them and they will be forever childish, demanding everything - respect included - for nothing. We should tell them the harsh truth. After all, they're entitled to it.

Jill Parkin is a parent and journalist

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