The Lives of Others’ Children

Banksie says it all.

Much is being made of the London riots this week, and as is often the case in these situations, the battle lines are being drawn. Inevitably these lines are forced to conform to our traditional dichotomies – the alarmist war metaphors proliferate. The class-war, the race-war, the rich vs the poor, left vs right, the young vs the old.

Something London is teaching me, and that I’m liking to learn, is that things just aren’t that simple – and certainly not ever that binary. It would be very convenient to classify this recent unrest to being the result of a disenfranchised (if you’re left-leaning) or indolent (if you’re right) youth with too much time on their hands and too little sense of civic responsibility.

In a way, I feel this has been the way ‘youth’ has been seen ever since the classification existed as distinct from ‘child’. Think: James Dean, Holden Caulfield. Alex DeLarge… So, if western youth has been going to hell in a hand basket for decades now – what special circumstances existed to allow that hell to manifest itself on these beloved London streets?

There has been something happening in London, though, that has left me feeling an increasing sense of unease.

Most people reading this will know that I have long been a fan of online social networking, blogging, micro-blogging and publishing. In New Zealand, as a secondary school teacher, I welcomed the participation in this world by my students. We shared access to each others Facebook walls in the same way as we shared the local supermarket aisles. It was all part of being in a community. There were many occasions where I took it upon myself to intervene when a student engaged in a particularly offensive personal attack – or uttered in the late of the night a cry for help about their invasive homework. Not once, to my knowledge, did one of these youths delete me as their ‘friend’. Their parents weren’t alarmed by any of this – largely they were their kids’ Facebook friends too – so they could see everything that was going on. All communication was recorded.

The adults provided a moderating effect on the teenagers’ excesses. We also learned more about the impact we had on them with our executive decision-making and privacy was maintained and respected through liberal application of principles of common sense.

Cut to London. The incredibly terrifying dictates of the UK “child protection” rules and protocols mean that my having any student from a school as a Facebook “friend” in this country would be looked upon with suspicion and alarm. Students in schools have picked up on this cue and protect their rights to “privacy” with a hyperbolic fervour bordering on the hysterical. The result – the worlds of adults and young people have been severed from each other and any overtures in either direction are closed down without discussion.

The youth of London communicate with each other on their relatively low-cost blackberry messaging systems and not one adult voice is heard. Kids always go to extremes, it’s natural and in many cases healthy. What’s missing here, ironically partially due to the well-meaning Child Protection zeitgeist, is any adult intervention.

None of us might find it comfortable, and the territory is riven with obstacles and potential abuses, but this notion that the online world of children should be completely adult-free is setting us all up for disaster.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet teaches us what can happen over a handful of days when an impassioned youth is disconnected from any meaningful adult influence.

My suggestion for action in the aftermath of the London riots: get our virtual hands dirty and, as we say in New Zealand: get in amongst it!

5 thoughts on “The Lives of Others’ Children

  1. Simon says:

    interesting argument, Chris .
    I have a policy of not accepting friend requests from current students for the same reason that I don’t treat them as friends at school. I have seen a number of teachers lose some of their effectiveness through trying to be both friend and teacher. Mutual respect yes, friendship – not until they leave school. I do agree that an adult voice is important but I see that as a parent’s role more than mine as a teacher. As you rightly point out the territory is fraught with difficulties and I prefer to look after my own safety by setting a boundary.

    • I completely agree with your point that it is a role-confusion for a teacher to try to make friends with their students. I also understand that students can easily misinterpret an adult’s personal interest in them as overtures of friendship – but I think where we differ is in our interpretation of the word ‘friend’ when used in the context of Facebook. I wonder if you disagree that adults (whether teachers or not) should get involved and take an interest in the lives of young people – even at a personal level?

  2. Kallikanzarid says:

    Did Holden Caulfield rape or murder someone when I wasn’t looking? Strange to see him paired with Alex DeLarge.

  3. noeline says:

    so good to read great discussion

  4. clmfitness says:

    See I wish I could write like this!!very good post,and nice banksy picture to boot!

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