In Australia, we are constantly being reminded about the fact that we have an aging population and the potential social and economic circumstances that may result. At the other end of the spectrum, we are also constantly being bombarded of images and media coverage of young people supposedly ‘running amok’ and engaging in anti-social behaviour. Given that there are so many young people who do not have access to responsible adult role models, it is hardly surprising. It is possible that both of these problems are, at least in some way, the result of the moral panic that seems to permeate society – perpetuated by the media – about the relationships between young people and older generations. You see, on one hand the media loves to wax lyrical about the ‘generation gap’ and the huge divide between the young and old with regard to social values, behaviours and attitudes about a whole range of issues. On the other hand, they are also quick to demonise those who actually cast aside the so-called ‘age barrier’ through implication and innuendo. I mean, the middle-aged man who has befriended the young boy from down the street must have sinister intent, right?
As a 15-year-old I met a man who remains one of my closest friends and supporters to this day. He was 40-something at the time and he and his wife are two of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. We met through a mutual interest and involvement in a particular sport and connected almost immediately. As a young man from a family environment that wasn’t particularly positive, it was great to find an adult who liked me and was nice to me and who I knew could rely on. In fact, I vividly remember the night I arrived at their house covered in blood, mashed potato and gravy having fled my house after my mother threw a plate of food at me. No questions asked, they welcomed me in and cleaned me up. It was probably the first time that I found myself with somewhere to turn in a crisis and he has always been there ever since with offers of support and assistance should I ever need it. Despite the obvious generational disparity and, for that matter, a considerable difference in our values and beliefs, this friendship has remained rock solid for almost 30 years. In fact, it has outlasted any friendships that I have developed over the years with those from within my own age demographic. We don’t talk every week or even every month but we do catch up regularly enough and I know that I can rely on him to help me should I ever need it. If I had paid any heed to the moral overseers and their tut-tutting about the (in)appropriateness of such a relationship, my life certainly may have taken a different path. Our friendship has proven mutually rewarding and beneficial and as my mate moves into old age (he is now 70) he knows he has another source of support should he ever need it. It’s a win-win for both sides of the generational divide.
Too many young people find themselves, like me, in a family situation that is far from positive and does not offer any support or stability. Furthermore, they do not have access to other adults or older people who can serve as a source of support and guidance. They do not have any adults with whom they can communicate openly and honestly without fear of judgement. As a result, many young people find themselves relying on friendships formed through mutual experiences in family dysfunction, poverty or social isolation, which often results in behaviours that can be damaging, both to the individuals concerned and the broader community. If there are no positive role models in their lives – or even somebody on whom they can rely as a source of advice, support or guidance – it is hardly surprising that young people may turn to destructive, or even self-destructive, behaviours. Moreover, it is to be expected that they will react negatively when adults, who have ignored them thus far, attack them for their behaviour and attitude. It is not good enough to come along afterwards and tell them how bad they are. The problem is, of course, that neither the media nor our politicians – who love to espouse their commitment to helping young people even though most of them have probably never met anybody under 18 because, in their eyes, if you can’t vote you don’t matter – really give a flying fuck about young people.
The one place where young people could, and should, have access to adult role models is at school. However, because schools are invariably controlled by bureaucrats answerable to those very politicians, this is unfortunately not the case. School administrators, perhaps even more so than the broader community, are so paranoid about the ‘danger’ of relationships between adults and students that they cast every teacher a potential predator by default. There is so much potential for teachers to provide advice, comfort, guidance, support and, dare I say it, friendship to young people who may not have access to any of these in their life outside of school. That’s not to say that teachers should be forcing themselves into the lives and personal business of students and their families, but they certainly shouldn’t be prevented from engaging with a student in the interests of ensuring that the student is safe. This, of course, could manifest itself in a variety of ways, such as:
• simply providing a place for a student to work or hang out that is free of whatever stresses might ordinarily impact upon their daily existence;
• providing assistance with school work;
• providing advice/assistance about a range of social issues or personal dilemmas impacting the young person;
• sharing information drawn from personal experience with which the student may relate and thereby be able to look beyond their immediate circumstances;
• communicating with young people openly and honestly with language that is not condescending or judgemental;
• removing the excess formality that exists in teacher/student relationships to enable students to feel confident in seeking assistance, advice or support.
Of course, many young people will have access to a range of adults and other roles models beyond their immediate family such a relatives, neighbours or the parents of friends but, for many others, teachers are the only adults with whom they have any sustained level of contact outside their home. Furthermore, I think it is important that young people are securing access to a wide range of perspectives and opinions about a whole range of issues to ensure that they are able to make informed decisions. At the very least, teachers and other adults may provide access to alternative perspectives about the expectations, beliefs and values that enable young people to ultimately form their own identity. Drawing on personal experiences (as long as you avoid the ‘when I was young’ cliché) can be an effective way to provide perspectives on a wide range issues and experiences. I know that sharing my personal experiences growing up in a family plagued by poverty, alcoholism, drug use and suicide has had a significant impact on many students that has ultimately led them to making changes in their own lives for the better.
It is important that young people feel comfortable engaging with adults if there is to be any genuine dialogue and engagement. Whether be drug and alcohol use, sex and sexuality, mental illness, family problems or school-specific issues such as bullying (which is rampant in every school despite all claims to the contrary), it is important that such conversations can be frank, open and honest. Too many adults, whether they be parents or teachers, feel embarrassed to discuss such things openly and this only results in young people being reluctant to bring them up and thereby opening themselves up to potential harm. Of course, young people should always be encouraged to utilise professional support services at every opportunity, but this is not always possible and/or the young person is reluctant to do so for whatever reason. Sometimes, of course, there are minimal support services available, particularly within schools.
Unfortunately, education authorities and school administrators seem determined to maintain a strict ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach to teacher-student relationships. The more information a teacher can acquire about students, the better they can do their job, but the obsession about ‘maintaining boundaries’ means that teachers are rarely able to fully understand the various factors that may influence student learning and thereby develop the very best educational strategies. Simply taking an interest in a young person’s wellbeing might be enough to motivate them to better outcomes. I can’t think of anything worse than somebody having a teacher who has no interest in them as a person. In fact, my own high school experience and outcomes only went from abysmal to great because a teacher did make an effort to know me and my circumstances and encouraged me to make changes to my life (which included distancing myself from my family) to ensure the best possible outcome and future opportunities.
Whilst I have focussed on teachers primarily because I can draw from my experiences in this regard, the example of my own friendship demonstrates that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a teacher, a neighbour, a sports coach, a family friend or somebody they meet at the bus stop, there are significant benefits for young people in developing strong, positive relationships with adults and, for want of a better word, authority figures. There does not have to be a generational divide, we just need to get rid of the fear and suspicion that is often cast at such relationships, only ever by those who aren’t involved of course. We should never assume that parents are meeting their responsibilities with regard to their children, even if they are trying their best to do so. Let’s face it, many parents are completely fucked up, totally out of their depth or just don’t care, so it is important that young people have a range of support networks in their lives to help them navigate through the maze that is childhood and adolescence. Let’s not fear such friendships, let’s embrace them because the potential benefits for young and old alike are immeasurable.
The notion that two people with a significant age difference (whether it 5, 10, 20, 30 years or more) can’t have the same interests, share ideas or engage in mature, honest conversation is a ridiculous notion harboured by those who want to see young people kept in ‘their place’ rather than embraced as worthwhile equal members of the community. Those prone to complaining about the ‘young people today’ are usually those who have never spoken to anybody under 20 and really wouldn’t have any understanding of the what makes them tick, what experiences that have had to endure or what positive contribution they might be making to the world around them. They rely on sensationalist media coverage to frame an opinion rather than making an effort to get to know people outside of the sheltered world in which they live. There is much joy to be had in connecting with young people, so it’s a shame that there are those who would rather frame such inter-generational relationships as perverse rather than positive. The greatest shame of all is that schools are perpetuating this view by making to quite clear that teachers should not, under any circumstances, engage with students and young people on a humanistic level. Any relationships must strictly follow the master and subordinate model of interaction, just like that which operates in our prisons!
Age is just an arbitrary number that really shouldn’t mean anything when it comes to making a human connection with another person so, when it comes to friendship (or relationships of any kind for that matter), what’s age got to do with it?