Mind The Gap

Here’s an up front disclaimer: This is not an article about parenting. I am not a parent (not in the biological sense anyway) and therefore don’t feel qualified to sound off on the subject. This is an article about how we are unintentionally letting a lot of young people down and how they are inadvertently doing themselves a disservice – and what we can all do about it.

At this point I suspect you’re asking yourself, “Why should we be doing something about it?”

A colleague recently asked me a similar question when I explained what I was trying to achieve with this blog…

“Why do you care so much? It isn’t your problem.” she vented.

Perhaps it isn’t my problem or business, but I’m most certainly touched and affected by it everyday. We all are. Doesn’t that at least make it our concern?

But I won’t get into that just yet…

So to reiterate, I am not a parent. But I am an avid observer of human interactions – and all too frequently I’ve found myself having to bear witness to the breakdown of dialogue between young people and members of the preceding generation (parents included) with a certain uneasy helplessness. This disconnect is proverbially referred to as the ‘generation gap’ – and it’s still surprisingly wide (and widespread) for a society that claims to be more savvy, better informed and psychologized than ever before.

There are misunderstandings on both sides of the age chasm and, in my opinion, there simply isn’t enough sharing and communicating going on to try and bridge the gap.

Of course, it really doesn’t help when some members of the older team choose to take a heavy-handed, autocratic approach…

“These damn kids today! No discipline, no values!” You hear similar grumbles so often that they’ve become tired cliches. Usually accompanied by a reproachful shaking of the head, these unsympathetic pronouncements are typically huffed by some crusty middle-aged person who recalls (with longing and rosily self-deluding nostalgia) a time when youngsters listened to and obeyed senior figures, pulled up their socks, shouldered responsibilities and didn’t get up to too much nonsense – all the while conveniently forgetting that they too were once young, and that they also harboured doubts about the collective wisdom of their elders, routinely felt misunderstood, were prone to boredom and restlessness, occasionally rebelled, slacked off from time to time, made stupid mistakes and got into their own fair share of trouble in their heyday.

I myself have often reflected on the instruction I was offered while growing up – and how I chose to ignore or reject some of it and do my own thing anyway because I didn’t feel that it spoke to my particular predicament. In hindsight, I’m glad I did (but that’s another story for another time).

Similarly, how many times have you heard a young person insist that their parents or older folks “just don’t understand” or are simply “out of touch” with the zeitgeist, if you will, of the latter-day generation?

Some people would chalk this form of protest or ‘rebellion’ up to the innate need we all have to feel free and self-governing. Sometimes kids are reluctant to talk about what’s really going on in their lives for fear that they might upset or let their parents down. Other times, it’s because their parents or guardians are consciously (or even unconsciously) not receptive to their questions or consider some subjects to be taboo or off-limits (there is such a danger here).

Or could it simply be a socially-programmed wholesale rejection of that which is perceived to be old-fashioned, staid and entrenched? Because it’s boring and “like, so not cool!”

Well, I’ve never really been “cool” (I gave up trying in high-school) but I frequently play the role of mentor and father-confessor to many young people – who share things with me that they wouldn’t even whisper to their chums, much less openly discuss with their parents (despite my encouragement).

If you want to know what my secret is – I’m saving it for another article, but here’s a snippet…

I’m not afraid to own up to stuff – especially my own considerable litany of screw ups.

And if you really want to start to help young people, you have to truthfully tap into your own experiences to remind yourself of what they’re going through.

It’s in our nature to question, experiment and explore – especially when we’re young. And sometimes we mess up. In fact, I don’t know a single bona fide grown-up who hasn’t.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon.

The same can be said for the generation before, and every generation before that – though each one is slightly different and therefore unique. And “unique” would certainly characterise this generation of youngsters and the challenges and hazards they face.

So many people from my peer group have observed how the first-class aspirations of their parents – and their tendency to over-compensate for their modest pasts by showering their kids with the kind of luxuries and spoils they themselves never had – has engendered an attitude of entitlement and even victimhood in a lot of emerging adults today. I also find that the pressure placed on today’s young people to measure up or conform is enormous – resulting in heightened, sometimes debilitating feelings of self-consciousness in certain individuals. There are also so many more pitfalls, tools for disinformation and avenues or opportunities for lapses in judgement.

Putting it bluntly – so many more unprecedented ways and means to F up!

I for one am so relieved that I got to do all my ‘growing up’ before the advent of the internet revolution. I shudder to think of what nuggets I might have put out there had I access to social media as a teenager or 20-something! It’s awful enough having to relive and revisit some of my foibles and follies in my own head – I would hate to have evidence of my dumbass-ery and naivete floating around in cyberspace for all posterity!

I check out what some young people are posting on the net – and I think “Oh man, in a few years from now you are so going to wish you hadn’t done that!”

But that’s all part of the process.

Part of the ‘education’, if you will.

But where, what and who are young folks getting their education from?

And where, what and who are they turning to (if at all) when they balls-up?

Last year a young woman applied for a job with our company – and although I’m not involved in HR or recruitment I always like to interview prospective employees that I may end up working closely with –  to get a sense of whether they’re equal to the task and to see if we would jell together. Churning out an hour-long weekly television show requires people who are creative and highly productive – and you seldom find both these attributes in the same individual. Unfortunately, the early 20-something young lady (who I shall refer to as “Jessica”), though dynamic, talented and ambitious, was up against older and more seasoned candidates and didn’t get the job in the end. She asked, however, if she and I could “stay in touch” since I was someone she’d always “looked up to”. Sensing a slight sexual tension, I responded by saying that I didn’t think it was appropriate for us to pursue a relationship outside of the professional arena – but added that she would be most welcome to contact me via e-mail if she needed any career advice or input.

She did. And a correspondence ensued.

Months passed and, unsurprisingly, the e-mails gradually took on a more cordial tone. I started to get the sense that it wasn’t just career advice Jess was craving.

After some gentle encouragement, she eventually disclosed that she had just recently come out of a traumatic and abusive relationship with a troubled older man – who had, since their break-up, started stalking her and had embarked on a smear campaign to sabotage her new job – and that she was struggling to come to terms with it all.

If her story is to believed, she’d clearly undergone an horrific ordeal. One that might have had an even more disastrous ending, given her spurned lover’s allegedly volatile personality.

But then came the really heart-rending part for me…

Apart from a couple of disapproving (equally inexperienced, albeit well-meaning) friends, her new (understandably dispassionate) boss and now me – nobody in Jessica’s family knew about the nightmare she had endured. She hadn’t mentioned a word of any of it to either of her parents.

Considering how young she is, this left me feeling deeply saddened. “What a lonely road to recovery and healing you’ve chosen for yourself.” I thought.

When I asked her why she hadn’t confided in her family, her response was vague. In fact, she seemed strangely detached and nonplussed. I took this as my cue to cool my interest and temper our correspondence. In any case, I didn’t wish to further complicate what was clearly an ongoing and unresolved drama. What this fledgling spirit really needed was trauma counselling with a professional and not words of comfort from a relative stranger via e-mail.

And I advised her accordingly.

But all I kept thinking was…

If you were my child I would have wanted to know. I would feel so helpless and heartbroken to learn that you went through all of that alone.

Why didn’t you feel safe enough to tell me?

I think this must be one of the hardest parts about being a parent: Learning to manage the constant fear that some harm may come to your child. Watching from the wings when they, even as adults, stumble and fall and make mistakes – knowing all the while that it’s their journey, right and prerogative to want to find their own way in life. And that trying to stop them or cushion and shelter them from the pain and embarrassment of those misjudgements would be futile – and will likely propel them even faster towards making them!

I suppose all you can really do is lead by example (this is a big one) and prepare them as best as you can – and hope that’s enough to guide them – while always keeping the door receptively and non-judgmentally wide open for them to ‘check-in’ if they need to.

I don’t know Jessica’s parents, so it would be unfair to comment on their apparent lack of interest in their daughter’s personal life and physical and emotional well-being. Perhaps Jessica was largely responsible for keeping her parents in the dark by putting on a pretence of happiness and normality. Though I admit I find it curious that they didn’t at least sense that something was amiss (there are always tell-tale signs in my opinion). Maybe they preferred to be in denial about the fact that their single young daughter was dating or that she was sexually active. “Every father’s daughter is a virgin” and all that.

I can’t say for sure.

But based on my experiences and observations, here’s what I do know…

There’s a disturbingly deep-rooted culture of ‘don’t ask-don’t tell’ non-transparency in a lot of homes and families in this country (this is, of course, not restricted to South Africa). And it’s reinforced by religious and cultural dogma, archaic notions about the parent-child dynamic and self-perpetuating denialism about the kind of actual real-world experiences that potentially lie ahead for a lot of our young adults.

It is this climate of denialism, combined with our apparent unwillingness and embarrassment to have frank discussions with our kids (of an appropriate age) about all manner of subjects – from sex and substance abuse to identity and self-esteem issues – that is failing young and susceptible people like Jessica – and compelling them to devise double-lives and furtively take their societally-perceived ‘inappropriate’ behaviour underground (where opportunistic predators like Jessica’s ex hunt in the shadows).

This is where a lot of young people are really getting their ‘education’.

As I touched on earlier, many young people I meet and know (including family) tell me things that they wouldn’t dare tell their parents. And when I ask why not, the consensus is that they fear chastisement, judgement, disapproval and or punishment. For some it’s simply the fear of disappointing or letting their parents down that renders them mute. Disturbingly, some of these kids inform me that their parents are secretly and passively aware of what’s going on but simply “don’t want to hear about it”.

Of course, I suspect that there are more sides and facets to these stories. The relationship between a parent and child can be very complex and easily misunderstood.

For example, when I think of Jessica, I wonder if she deliberately didn’t tell her mum and dad about her involvement with this guy because he was older – and that she just assumed that they wouldn’t approve of him or the relationship. Judging by her attraction to much older men (like myself), I suspect that she has a bit of a father complex – and that’s a pretty tough one to explain to parents, particular fathers!

But I strongly suspect that she is also a proud and headstrong young woman who would have preferred to think that she could control the situation – before realizing, all too late, that she was in way over her head.

Whatever the reasons or circumstances, Jessica chose not to ask for help.

And there are so many young people like her out there…

Searching for answers to uncomfortable questions (that they’re afraid to ask). Secretly yearning for some non-intrusive guidance (while pretending not to need it). Wanting to figure things out for themselves (but still craving inspiration and advice).

They need to feel safe enough to ask for help.

I may not be a parent, but I feel an obligation to try and make it that bit easier for them to do so.

And if you don’t mind, I will.

Author: Imraan Vagar

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  1. Once again you’ve managed to sensitively tackle a very complex issue without oversimplifying things. Imraan, you really should consider taking your message to TV. A talk-show maybe? Your charisma will drive the message home in a more powerful way.

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  2. This is an extremely well written article. Thanks!

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