TWEENAGERS AND KIDULTS
Why children grow up quickly and their parents don’t want to grow up at all.
The phenomenon of tweenagers, in other words, kids growing older younger, is hardly new, despite what the media claim. Children have always wanted to grow up quickly to claim the entitlements of adult life. What has changed in the last twenty years is the way the surrounding culture has made it possible for them to do this. Children are targeted as consumers now as never before, and they are encouraged to express preferences which they struggle to handle at their age. Sweden has banned advertising to children under the age of 12, but we tolerate our children being saturated with images all day. Children are a key audience because of their pester power. One large American media group recently produced a report entitled: ‘The Fine art of whining: why nagging is a kid’s best friend’, which helped to isolate which kinds of parents are most susceptible to nagging!
The corporate world knows that if you can reach the child, the parent is yours as well. For while children are growing up more quickly, a new generation of parents is steadfastly refusing to. They have been coined kidults – adults who are still kids at heart and in their spending patterns.
Here are four examples of what I mean:
1. You can’t go into a clothes shop like ‘Gap’ as a teenager today without finding that the person browsing next to you is twice your age and has no shame about being there. This is ironic, given that the Gap’s name is short for ‘generation gap’ – a celebration of age difference and teenage space.
2. Another example is how the largest growing market for Play Station is adults with money, muscling in on territory owned by young people. In 1990 the average age of video game players was 18, now it is 30 and ageing.
3. A third trend is the way adult and children reading habits now co-incide. This may have begun with Harry Potter, but the tendency is spreading, and was seen in the phenomenal success of the novel ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ by Mark Haddon.
4. A final example is the way young people can’t go to rock concerts without finding some embarrassing forty-something bloke doing air guitar next to them. And it’s usually their father. Someone I know overheard his daughter’s twelve year old friend talk excitedly about how she had just seen The Darkness in concert, only for him to chip in that he had been there too, at the front, in the middle.
In previous generations, young people were able to carve out their own special space in life where adults were reluctant to tread. This space has grown smaller and smaller today as adults co-opt youth fashion and make it their own.
In some ways, then, growing up has never been easier, because your parents are actually trying to emulate you. And yet in other ways, the dilemmas have become more complicated, and as such, less understood. In exposing children early to commercial, academic and sexual pressures, we may generate a savvy and sophisticated generation, but this will surely be blended with weariness, a loss of wonder and an addiction to materialism which will serve them badly. And in this way they simply mirror adults. One of the opportunities we have in helping a child to grow up in the Christian community is to show them a different perspective, and I am convinced we can offer them three gifts.
The first is access to personal relationships, not possessions. We don’t have a lot to offer materially in the church, but this is a strength, not, as it might appear at first sight, a weakness. Our goal is to build relationships based on grace and love, and the cost for this has already been paid, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Churches offer relationships across the generations which few places outside the family can. Best of all, they help to nurture the biggest asset in life: a personal relationship with God. No material gift, however lavish, compares with the unfading wonder of knowing God loves you personally.
The second gift faith offers is access to personal worth, not image. The worship of glamorous perfection leads to quiet misery for many young people who think they’re worthless because they don’t look like a supermodel or play football like a superstar. Our story is different: God believes in us deeply, has gifted us uniquely, and supports us personally. We can’t pretend that Christians always feel great about themselves, because they don’t. But they have a different story to tell themselves about the love of God when assailed by self-doubt, and this story is more persuasive than self-judgment.
The third gift offered to children through faith is access to personal calling, not fame. The new wave of talent shows make for gripping TV, but they also play heartlessly on the wish of insecure young people to become famous so people will love them more. The Christian faith tells of the calling God has for each of us, a purpose for life which blesses us and others through us. For some this will lead to fame and fortune, but what we want, what we really, really want, is a sense of meaning and purpose in life – and God provides this in spades.
The intriguing thing about the way parents’ and children’s interests collide today is that it makes the exploration of a shared spirituality more possible. After all, if you wear the same jeans, watch the same TV, attend the same concerts, read the same books and support the same causes, there is already a pathway between you down which God’s Spirit may also walk back and forth fruitfully. Faith has often been a battleground between parents and children, especially where children feel they are being asked to embrace a culture they can’t identify with. Giving thanks to God for the interests that today’s families share together, and asking God to reveal his love through them, can turn the battleground into a party.
There’s an African saying that it takes a village to raise a child. By the same token, it takes a church to raise a Christian. It is a modern myth that people are self-made in life, because we are formed by a network of relationships which influence us, subtly but profoundly. And children need to have adult Christian role models outside their family, as well as within it.
A lot of research has been done on how churches keep children, and one key finding is that children tend to stay - when they are old enough to choose to leave - because they have formed meaningful friendships with adults in the church. These friendships help them to make the transition to adulthood within the life of the worshipping church because they feel wanted and valued. The national statistic about the number of children leaving church in adolescence is driven by a number of social factors, but one of them is the failure of churches to form these inter-generational links effectively.
But just as surely as adults nurture children in the faith, so children can re-awaken joy and wonder in adults. The dreariness and cynicism which strangle many adults can be loosened by attention to the way children think, talk and play. There is a sense in which adults who lose a sense of childlikeness lose something of their soul. Jesus clearly thought so when he famously said: whoever does not received the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it. Good links between the generations bless adults as well as children. So maybe the loss of space between tweenagers who grow up too quickly and kidults who won’t grow up at all isn’t such a bad thing after all. There are newly-minted ways of sharing faith between the generations, and as a kidult would surely say in response: hey, bring it on!
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