The teenagers we deserve

When I arrived at the BBC this morning there were other, much cooler, vehicles parked outside. Once I’d negotiated the flightpath to the building, I was talking about teenagers, self-harm and confidence. You can listen again here at 1:22:10 or read the Thought below (and you can go and look at the Spitfires and Harriers at Pacific Quay until 2 September).

J.B.Priestley once said that ‘Like its politicians and its war, society has the teenagers it deserves.’ As someone who works with dramatic teenagers, this seems a rather dismissive comment. Not all teenagers are the same, and not all teenagers are a nuisance. Many are creative, caring and concerned about the environment, politics and injustice. Many of the teenagers I know hold beliefs that challenge my cynical middle-age opinions.

But, as is frequently revealed in surveys, lots of young people also struggle with emotional pain and mental illness. A report issued yesterday revealed that of 11000 children surveyed in the UK, 22% of girls and 9% of boys admit to self-harming. If Priestley is right, then what does this tell us about our society? How did we arrive at the place where, for a large number of young people, the only outlet for emotional pain is to inflict physical harm on their own bodies? And what do we need to change about society as proof that these are not acceptable statistics?

From an early age children are encouraged to be whoever they want to be. At the same time we criticise their risk-taking behaviour, we allow them wander alone into an online world of comparison, and we let them down by failing to provide the stability they crave. Teenagers aren’t actually any different from the rest of us. They need community, purpose and encouragement. They need to know that they are loved. 

Psalm 139 reminds us that God takes a high view of humanity. The writer states:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

How many of us, old or young, would be prepared to say confidently that we are fearfully and wonderfully made? I’m not naive enough to think that self-harm will be eradicated by hugging a hoodie, but I’m sure that instilling confidence and a sense of being valued in the next generation is an important part of giving them the best possible chance of proving that they are fearful and wonderful beings. 

Back to School

I was in Lockerbie Academy today leading some training in communication with their staff team. Alongside the serious work of thinking about our content, framing and delivery,  we also laughed a lot,  and I had the opportunity to encourage them that the work they are engaged in has lasting significance and value in the lives of the young people they encounter.

It’s in the same spirit that I wrote and performed a short poem/prayer at church yesterday. At this time of year, as we launch into a new season of school, work and routine tasks, it can be tempting to forget the purpose behind it all. God is building a kingdom or hope, and all of us get to play air part in that. Perhaps this poem will help and encourage you as the summer ends.

It’s back to school
And back to work
Pick up the everyday routine
Of new shoes and old paths
Schoolbags and packed lunches, laptops and half-forgotten logins
Early morning rush
And creeping evening darkness

No more the lazy days of choosing what to do
Of sunny faces, ice cream
And long summer sunsets
And time to be, just be
Autumn looms and life charges in
With drizzle and darkness, central heating and soup
The creep of winter and fear of what lies ahead
The resumption of responsibility
Pulled from the longing to linger

It’s back to school
And time to learn anew
The value of fresh encounter with you
Of knowing you in the minute by minute
Of enjoying your pleasure in the everyday
Of knowing our purpose and your presence
With us, in the dishes, and the pencil case and the early morning run

It’s time to sigh with thankfulness for summer well spent
To apply ourselves again to what you ask
To commit in the routine to know your
‘well done’ whispered over us
To know your
‘I am with you’
In the hard times and the joy
To dwell in your peace
In the darkness and the unknown

It’s back to school
It’s back to you
It’s kingdom come
And serving you wherever you may lead us next
And may your kingdom come in our hearts
In our homes
In our studies
In our work
In our families
In our calling
May your kingdom come and may your will be done
In us
In the everyday
Today and everyday