One topic that is often glossed over by Kollapsniks is the topic of how to talk to children about the future. Perhaps it's because, as humans, we tend to place our hopes for the future in our children, and if all we can see is a bleak future then why bother telling them about it at all?
I have two daughters—aged 11 and 13. They are bright and beautiful, clever and compassionate. I'll admit that sometimes I worry about the world they will inhabit when they become adults. It's likely to be a world that very few people are preparing their kids for—and that's putting it mildly. Given what we know about how climate systems are becoming chaotic, how energy that was once as concentrated as a bottle of whisky is rapidly turning into a glass of shandy, about mass extinctions, overpopulation, the creeping corporate takeover of society, the dumbing down of culture, the pollution and destruction of the biosphere, mass refugee movements, resource wars, nuclear meltdowns and so on and so forth ... is it any wonder that so few of us want to broach the topic?
Despite all of these threats hanging over us what message, if any, is society sending to kids about the future? Are the cultural engineers who shape these young minds preparing them for a world in which the above drawbacks of industrial civilisation are honestly discussed? Or are they, instead, doubling down on the failures of the past and hammering into them the idea that what may kill us will also be our saviour? I think you already know the answer to that.
As a parent, I often get to unwillingly overhear/see children's TV programmes in the form of CBBC (Children's BBC). There are no commercials on CBBC but that doesn't mean it doesn't contain plenty of social programming and, by now, my kids are well used to hearing me howl in disagreement at something that was said—especially when Newsround is on.
Newsround—and pretty much every other programme on CBBC—propagates the narrative that we are heading towards a shiny future living on Mars, and that robots will do all the drudge work. Everything will be solar powered and there will be all sorts of consumer gadgets and devices, such as jetpacks and flying skateboards, and instead of dying we will be able to upload our minds into "the cloud" and live in virtual reality worlds that will be even more awesomer than living on Mars with robots.
|The CBBC Newsround gang - getting the kids ready for the future|
These little techno utopian skits are punctuated with other "news" items about reality TV shows, sports and the lives of celebrities, and—needless to say—everything is very PC and "right on" with a perfect mix along lines of gender/race/ability.
If this little window onto the cultural programming of infants is in any way reflective of the wider world then I hate to think what will be the effect on the state of mind of our youngsters as they approach maturity and find out what the real world is like. What's a concerned elder to do?
So, reaching over and turning off the mind-warp machine for a moment, what are reality-aware parents supposed to do to prepare their offspring for the future they'll likely get? Well, I can't speak for everyone, but my strategy is revealed in the 18 tips that follow:
1 - Teach them how to be aware of when someone is trying to con them. Adverts are a great place to start. Teach them how to strip an ad down to its basic components: what's it trying to do? Make it funny. My kids can laugh at any ad they see and tell you what emotion/fear/desire they are using to get you to buy their product.
2 - Get them interested in making things that are useful. I'm not very crafty, but my wife is, and she has taught them how to sew and crochet. They can now make their own clothes—and they enjoy doing it immensely. And if you're doing any DIY get them to watch and hand you the tools. There is nothing more lamentable than adults who don't know how to change a lightbulb or fix a leaky tap.
3 - Don't give them everything they want. Being denied something that you really, really want, is good for you. Growing up and getting everything you want all the time creates adults that are selfish and unhappy. They will be forever craving material possessions and will be mentally unable to process not getting what they want. They end up unhappy and have unfulfilled and unfulfilling lives. In the future people will not be able to get what they want—the best time to practice for that is now.
4 - Teach them to cook proper food from an early age. Let them be messy and let them create hideous concoctions, if that's what they want. Kids love preparing food and cooking, and the only way they'll learn about it is doing it for themselves. For your own sanity, also insist they clean up their mess afterwards.
5 - Tell them that school teaches you useful stuff but the real lessons come from life and what you learn yourself. I tell my kids that I don't care what grades they get as long as they do their best: that grading schemas are dreamed up by dull people in London as a way to get our kids to compete with Chinese kids and squeeze every bit of creativity out of the educational system. These days most children are put on a conveyor belt from early infancy which leads them through school and college and turns them into bonded debt slaves working in unfulfilling jobs. Impress upon them that this doesn't have to be the case and that alternative paths are open to them. Encourage them to follow their interests as long as this will likely lead to them being able to make a living for themselves that doesn't rely on massive amounts of fossil fuels or ponzi finance schemes. Guide them, in this respect. Impress upon them that the world doesn't owe them a living and that no job should be below them. To that end, don't give them pocket money unless they've earned it doing chores.
6 - Show them how much fun can be had for free. My fondest memories from childhood involved tobogganing down a snowy hill on a plastic bin bag, building dens in bit of woodland at the edge of town, hunting for fossils for my collection, playing conkers, riding my bike with friends from dawn until dusk and bodyboarding on a cheap polystyrene surfboard. All of these activities were either free or very cheap—and very fun. I also had loads of toys and certainly suffered no lack of anything—but toys were things to be played with when all the other possibilities just mentioned had been exhausted. Today my kids, and many of the other kids in town, go down to the harbour in the summer and jump off the walls into the water, just as kids have done here for centuries. You can hear their cries of joy from afar.
7 - Get them interested in reading, because books open up all sorts of doors in the mind. If you want to be really devious occasionally forbid them from reading certain books. I forbade my 13-year-old daughter from reading 1984 recently ("It's too grown up for you,") and—unsurprisingly—found a copy hidden under her bed with a bookmark placed well into it. There is nothing like forbidding something to make it attractive to curious minds. When they are young read them stories every night. All kids love being read stories and they love their parents to read them stories most of all. From a book. Made of paper.
8 - Teach them to question authority and not to blindly obey whatever instructions are given to them. By this I don't mean encourage them to be mouthy confrontationists, I mean tell them to trust their instincts and, if something doesn't feel right, discuss it openly with people they trust. At the top I mention CBBC—when I was a kid in the 1970s, many of the famous faces on TV (we now discover) were pedophiles, using their status to prey on young kids. We can only guess how extensive this network of kiddie fiddlers was/is (even the Prime Minister at the time, Edward Heath, is under suspicion of running a ring), but we know that the psychic vampires who populate it prey on people's blind obedience and unwillingness to question authority. Give your kids the equivalent of a silver crucifix and some garlic to ward off these monsters.
9 - Tell them about how the future is likely to be, but don't be a doomer. Show them documentaries. Talk to them about problems—and ask them if they have any good ideas about how to tackle them (you'd be surprised). Nobody knows what the future will hold. It will certainly be turbulent, and turbulence means lots of potential and possibilities for those willing to engage with it.
10 - Teach them about growing plants for food. Just as with preparing food, kids love to grow plants—especially if they can eat them afterwards. Tomatoes are great to get started, as are potatoes, peppers and radishes. All are easy to grow. If you have the space, give them their own plot, raised bed or mini greenhouse. If not, then get them to grow some plants of a windowsill. Take them to a farm and show them where eggs and milk and meat comes from. Teach them what grows for free in nature.
11 - Allow them to be bored. Many kids today are over-stimulated and cannot figure out what to do with themselves if the entertainment gadgets are switched off. Periods of boredom allow the brain to slow down and—more importantly—develop a more reflective aspect. In the future there will likely be far fewer opportunities to be over-stimulated, but at the same time there will be a lot of boring drudge work that needs doing. A mind addicted to external stimulation would not be able to cope with—say—working in the fields for hours each day, whereas a mind that is able to be quietly contemplative and reflective will fare far better.
12 - Make sure they are good mannered. Manners are a form of currency that will open doors and make them pleasant to be around. Also teach them how to disagree with someone with an opposing viewpoint without being hostile and reactive. Being good-mannered in a disagreement doesn't mean being a pushover—it simply means that you can reject the other side's BS with good grace and move on without turning into a foamy-mouthed berserker.
13 - Impress upon them the importance of avoiding debt. Unless they are certain the debt is an investment, make sure they realise how it can trap them. If they want to buy something that is a consumer item they should save up for it.
14 - Teach them how to physically defend themselves from attackers. Getting them enrolled in martial arts classes or boxing will be good for them in many ways. Not only will it give them the ability to fight off an attacker, but it will boost their self-confidence and improve their physical fitness. What's more, many if not most would-be attackers already have some knowledge of their victims, and knowing that they are a black belt in karate or a kick boxing champ will make them think twice. In Europe we are already seeing a huge upsurge in domestic abuse and violent street crimes as law and order breaks down. Young women on the streets of some cities face the prospect of being raped by gangs of men, who can get away with it as observers stand idly by and the police turn a blind eye in the name of community relations. As the father of two girls I want them to be able to fend off an attacker—fighting dirty if need be.
15 - Tell them they ain't gonna live on Mars. No way. Never gonna happen.
16 - Teach them to be open minded but realistic. Get them to think logically and to seek out evidence. Once they have discovered the harsh truth about the Tooth Fairy and Santa, use this as an example of why you should never trust anything you hear. Being an open minded sceptic is the best way forward.
17 - Show them by example. There's no point in telling them to do stuff if you then go and break all the rules yourself. Admit that you're far from perfect. Tell them all the mistakes you have made along your path, and that you hope they'll avoid the same mistakes. Be ready for them to make the same mistakes.
18 - And finally—loosen up. Don't be one of those joyless parents who only allows their precious snowflakes to eat organic quinoa and listen to non-culturally appropriated fairy tales. Instead, allow them to drink Coca Cola, eat chocolate until they throw up, stay up all night during sleepovers, play with knives, hear rude jokes, encounter bullies, be in the same room as drunken adults talking nonsense, climb trees and run with scissors. Seriously. Because although there may be some minor risk involved in all of these things, there is an almost 100% probability that if you don't allow them this freedom you'll create a delicate little flower who won't be able to survive unless they are cocooned within a safe space and given trigger warnings every time they encounter mild peril. What's more they'll just end up rebelling against you and will turn into exactly the kind of person you didn't want them to be - and it'll all be your fault.
That's pretty much how I'm raising my kids, mindful of the likely future they'll find themselves living in. Oh, I forgot one last thing—make sure you treat your kids well. Look after them, love them and treat them with respect. Foster within them joy, compassion and a sense of fairness. Those kids are not yours—you're just borrowing them. Because one day the boot will be on the other foot and, if you've done your job right, you can only hope the favour will be repaid. And if the future turns out even harsher than all your preparations have allowed for, then at least they might help you to push that shopping trolley down The Road.
This blog post is an updated version of an earlier one, including four new points and a few edits for clarity.