In an infantile culture, children welcome a chance to grow up

June 12, 2004
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds

Published in The Times, 12th June 2004

Years ago I came across Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” Since then I’ve discovered another, more hopeful principle: “Young people grow to fill the space we create for them.”

Ask little of our children and they stay small — not physically but ethically, spiritually. Ask much and they surprise us by their capacity to give and take responsibility. One of the questions any society should ask itself is: What space do we create for our children?

It is adults, not children, who infantilised our culture. It happened when big business discovered that children represent an immense potential market, not just for toys but also clothes, music, films, video games, soft drinks, junk food, the whole paraphernalia of street cool.

So began the transformation of children into consumers, of which obesity is only the most recent symptom to catch public attention. In the culture of you-are-what-you-buy, children are turned into premature adults, just as adults are turned into superannuated children.

I think, in grateful contrast, of my own childhood. My late father came to Britain as a child refugee. His family was poor. It could afford the education of only one child, and he was not the eldest. So he had to leave school at the age of 14 to begin work. He never complained. He knew that Britain, by giving him shelter, had probably saved his life. Instead he concentrated on making sure that we, his four boys, had the education he lacked.

He gave us one gift. It may seem ludicrously small, but it wasn’t. He gave us the chance to give him pride. He never put it into words. He was not a neurotic, status-anxious parent urgent to see his children over-achieve. We just knew, without having to be told, that we were going beyond him, reading the books, absorbing the ideas, acquiring the skills he admired but had not had the chance to make his own. He walked a little taller because of us — and we walked a little taller because we knew he did.

Nowhere is it truer than in childhood that we become what we are inspired to be. “Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,” said the Prophet Joel, “your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions.”

Childhood needs its visions and aspirations. Joseph — the first person described in the Bible as a teenager — was the great dreamer of dreams. The young Moses, moved by the plight of his people, began the fight against injustice and slavery that was to become his life and legacy.

When we are young, we want to change the world. If that instinct is frustrated, there is a danger that children will turn to drink, drugs, sex, danger, violence, anger and the many other pathologies of our age.

That’s why our community, together with many others, made a special effort to recognise the contribution of young people to this year’s Volunteers’ Week. Twenty-one million people in Britain take part in some voluntary activity, and we try, within our schools and youth groups, to encourage this as forcefully as we can, empowering young people to exercise leadership in service to community and society, helping the needy, befriending the lonely, sharing skills, enacting ideals. We give them the chance to give us pride — and they do. That must be the way of the future.

If we want our children to become active citizens we have to induct them early into the habits of responsibility. They need the space to write their own chapter in the story we share, and they need to know that we trust them to do so — making mistakes along the way but learning from them. More than parents or schools, it is children who educate children. All we can do is to give them the chance to give — to others, to society and to the world that will one day be theirs.

A religious ideal? Yes, actually. God is a parent and we are His children. We give Him heartache much of the time, but Isaiah dared to think that at times we also give Him pride. “You are My servant,” he said in the name of God, “in whom I glory.”

The Rabbis said, “Call them not ‘your children’ but ‘your builders’”. We need to redress the imbalance in our culture between material affluence and moral poverty. Our children will build tomorrow if they give, not consume, today.