An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

Talking to the Young: Honouring the Sacred Trust of Parenting By Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

In Healing, parenting on September 28, 2012 at 2:28 pm

In her eloquent editorial in the previous issue of emel, Sarah Joseph, referring to the recent survey by the soap manufacturer Dove, sounded some loud warning bells about the anxiety, stress and low self-esteem experienced by girls in a culture increasingly dominated by false images of “perfection”.

My last article addressed the equally alarming problem of the abuse and neglect of the old in our culture, but in this issue, following Sarah’s lead, I would like to explore the rising concern about the welfare of children and teenagers in our culture.

Warning bells have been sounding for several years about the scandalous increase in depression, self-harm and even suicide amongst young people, including schoolchildren. Tragically, a growing number of websites apparently offer advice to young people who want to take their own lives about the best methods of killing themselves. In 2004, the suicide rate in Britain was three times higher among schoolchildren than it was 20 years before, with children as young as five being treated for self-harming. The main causes of self-harm amongst children and teenagers – at that time believed to be the highest in Europe – were bullying at school and exam stress as well as an abusive parent or bereavement. The pressures caused by the school testing regime had already been exposed in a poll carried out in 2002 which found that testing had replaced bullying as the biggest fear for schoolchildren during their schooldays.  “The obsession with exams and targets is destroying childhood”, wrote Richard Garner in The Independent in response to this poll.

By 2005, Carl Honore was reporting in his book In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed, that “children as young as five now suffer from upset stomachs, headaches, insomnia, depression and eating disorders brought on by stress”.  In the same year, in an article in The Guardian entitled “Doubt and depression burden teenage girls”, Lucy Ward reported the findings of a poll commissioned by the magazine Bliss (now confirmed by the Dove survey) that “the vast majority of teenage girls in Britain suffer depression and self-doubt, blaming excessive pressure to look good and succeed in school.” Nine out of ten said they felt depressed, 42% felt low regularly, and 6% thought life was not worth living. 84% felt burdened with too much homework and coursework at school, and almost two-thirds thought there was too much pressure to succeed academically. Most admitted crying over their homework. Bullying also featured high, 66% admitting that they had been bullied, mainly by other girls.

Ward’s article also referred to the 2004 Time Trends study on adolescent mental health by the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and the University of Manchester, which revealed a sharp overall decline in the mental health of teenagers in the past 25 years. Amongst its findings was the startling revelation that 37% of teenage girls believed they suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. Commenting on this report, Dr. Andrew McCulloch of the Mental Health Foundation noted what he described as a “shocking decline in the mental health of our teenagers.” He continued, “The epidemic of self-harm among young people in the UK may only be a precursor to a mental-health crisis among this generation.” We should realize too that in both Britain and the USA mental health problems afflict a quarter of the entire population at some stage in their lives compared to 10% in mainland Europe.

The full extent of the personal and social crisis afflicting our children hit the headlines earlier this year when The UNICEF report on Child Well-Being in Rich Countries  placed Britain bottom of the league in child welfare out of 21 developed countries, with the USA very close behind in 20th place. In short, Britain is the worst place to bring up a child in the developed world. The six dimensions investigated in this study include not only behaviour and family and peer relationships but also experience of schooling and personal happiness.

The UNICEF report pointedly opens with the statement that “The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children.” Commenting on the murder of Rhys Jones and other victims of child crime, the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, has pointed out that “our society, so technologically advanced, seems to have become, especially for children, brutalised and dangerous.” “Civilisation”, he says, “is judged by the way it treats its children.”  And in the light of the low standing of educational well-being in Britain, we should heed the words of that visionary educator Maria Montessori that “One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.”

Now, only last month (October 2007) the Primary Review by Cambridge University, the biggest study of its kind in 40 years, exposed the deep anxiety experienced by modern primary school children, the result of the excessive pressure imposed on them by school tests (fuelled partly by parents themselves), a rise in knife and gun crime, consumerism, the cult of celebrity and family breakdown.

And as I write these very words, I can hear a news item on BBC Radio 4 about the binge drinking culture affecting younger and younger children, with many reporting that recourse to alcohol has now become the only way to “kill the pain, anxiety and fear” they feel about their lives and the state of the world around them.

So what are we to do? Well, the very last thing we should do is to point the finger of blame at these unhappy young people. It’s all too easy to start pontificating about the pervasive “yob culture” in the face of so many reports of bad behaviour spiralling out of control, but the real task before us is to find the underlying causes and come up with supportive solutions.  Although a report published this year by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and based on surveys and reports spanning the last 50 years has described British teenagers as “the worst behaved in Europe”, it firmly points the finger at the weakening of “inter-generational family ties” as the prime cause of their deteriorating behaviour. The fault is patently not theirs but the failure of personal care and the collapse of relationships between the generations which leaves them rudderless, emotionally vulnerable and susceptible to a voracious consumer economy and celebrity culture. According to figures released by the British government, the average parent spends twice as long dealing with emails as playing with his/her children. The same report found that British adolescents spent longer in the company of other teens – and less time with adults and parents – than most other young people around the world. Only 64 per cent eat with their parents in Britain compared to 89 per cent in France and 93 per cent in Italy.

Sarah Joseph offers the vital remedy of “conversation” and “engagement” as a means of empowering our children to “contextualise the multi-billion pound industries that are vying for them and their money”, and this is of course a remedy which can help to protect and heal all our children, and not only those girls oppressed and deceived by the Beauty Myth. Data just published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families point to lack of conversation in the home as one of the chief reasons for the low attainment of many primary school children, coupled with a decline in outdoor play and a rise in addictive video games and television.

What is so disappointing, however, is the lack of vision, imagination and understanding shown by so many of those ‘experts’ entrusted with coming up with supposedly authoritative strategies for tackling these problems. I remember Professor Louis Appleby, the British Government’s mental health ‘tsar’, saying in 2005 that the way to deal with the problem of declining mental health in children and adolescents was to bring in an “army of therapists”, as if it were the children who were sick instead of the dispiriting social environment and demoralising school system in which they were growing up. Their disaffection should have been obvious at the time from statistics which showed that truancy was continuing to rise (reaching an average of 49,000 pupils absent from school every day in the year up to April 2004) despite government measures designed to tackle this problem.

An equally blinkered and heavy-handed solution for dealing with misbehaviour and educational under-achievement is the “legal extension” to the school day called for in the recent IPPR report or in the even newer government proposal for compulsory education for all teenagers until the age of 18.  Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood: How Modern Life is Damaging our Children and What We can Do about It, has voiced her scepticism about initiatives such as this. “It’s no good trying to counter the effects of this mess,” she claims, with what “sounds suspiciously like internment” in the form of “state-sponsored educare” or other “ham-fisted policies”.  She is surely right in maintaining that “rather than trying to stick elastoplast on the gaping wounds appearing in society, we should be looking at what’s gone so comprehensively wrong and trying to put it right.”

Her solution is to reclaim a culture of personal care, for it is this which “provides children with emotional resilience and a sense of personal responsibility”.

Robert Bly, the American poet, has written a probing analysis of the troubled soul of western society. His prophetic book The Sibling Society, published in 1996, revealed to us a culture where adults remain children and where children have no desire to be adults, where we tolerate no one above us and have no concern for anyone below us. Disenchantment with all forms of hierarchy (partly justified by the abuse of power which hierarchical structures can engender) has led to a levelling which has destroyed any willingness to look up or down. But without that ‘vertical gaze’, as Bly calls it, we have no longing for the good, no deep understanding of evil. What we are left with is a spiritual Flatland in which the talk show replaces family, the internet replaces art, and the shopping centre replaces the community.

Bly’s insights go further than the usual cultural criticism. We have been changed fundamentally, he says, by the way our consumer culture has exploited adolescent insecurity and stimulated envy and greed. The Superego which once demanded high standards of behaviour and ethics no longer demands that we be good but merely ‘famous’. Driven by this insatiable need for superficial attention, and with no guidance towards the discipline required for genuine accomplishment, our young people are defeated before they begin, or in Sarah Joseph’s words, left “unarmed and defenceless”.

Bly argues passionately that it is the young and the disenfranchised or who are the most victimised by the sibling culture and it is these people (including, we must add, the old) whom are all too easily throw out of the window.

The Qur’an emphasizes that the care of parents for children and children for parents is a reciprocal relationship, in which the honour shown to elderly parents is a natural outcome of the way in which they cherished and reared their children:

And do good unto thy parents. Should one of them, or both, attain to old age in thy care, say not to them a word of contempt, nor scold them, but always speak unto them with reverent speech, and spread over them humbly the wings of thy tenderness, and say: “O my Sustainer! Bestow Thy grace upon them, even as they cherished and reared me when I was a child!” (17:23-24).

This mutual love, looking upwards to the old and downwards to the young, a clear sign of a healthy society, begins, of course, with the sacred trust of cherishing and rearing the young. That mutuality is mirrored too in the love and tenderness between “mates” which the Qur’an tells us is ordained by God:

Among His wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of your own kind, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders love and tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think!” (30: 21).

In my previous article on care of the elderly I pointed out that the word rabb in the Qur’an has the sense of “rearing, sustaining and fostering anything from its inception to its final completion”, and it is for this reason that Muhammad Asad chooses to translate the word not as Lord but as Sustainer. I drew a parallel with the word nurse in English, which still retains its original sense of suckling the young, and, by extension, caring for young plants in a “nursery”.

The contrast between these beautiful concepts and the findings of the recent IPPR report could not be more striking. As a senior research fellow at the think-tank has said, the report is “an admission that successive governments have left British youth to its own devices.” One of the findings of the Primary Review was that children are having to grow up too fast in our society, but this seems to me to be misleading, for the chief feature of a sibling society is that children do not really grow up into adults and adults themselves remain as children or “kidults”. The truth is that children are increasingly burdened with the pressures of adulthood, including the sexualising pressures, inflated by cynical advertising, which destroy their innocence, stifle their imaginations, and harden their souls, but, in the absence of nurturing relationships with adults, their own premature “growing up” is only a wounded and impoverished version of what it truly means to be an adult.

Boot-camp or other strictly authoritarian measures designed to control children and teenagers cannot provide the answer. We need a long-term vision aimed at the restitution of a culture of personal care. The humane vision of the Qur’an, guiding us to mutual and reciprocal love, empowers Muslims once again to rise to the challenge to become a creative force for social renewal for all our citizens, whatever their age, in our broken and dysfunctional society.

(Originally published in Emel, December 2007)


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