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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 13/03/2008

When I was in Madeira last year I was shocked by my own attitude. We had been on a long walk and ended up at a café beside a museum where we sat outside in the sun and had a drink. The place was reasonably quiet because it was out of season. The only other customers were two English couples. The woman from the café and her colleague from the museum also sat outside in the sun, very near us and conversed quietly. That was fine. But then a couple of teenage boys came along, very casual looking in jeans and baseball caps, and stood chatting to the two local women. If they had done this for a few minutes I wouldn’t have thought anything about it. But they stood there, laughing and chatting for nearly half an hour and I started to get somewhat irritated. I caught the eye of the two English women: they were looking tight lipped. One look and I could see we were in agreement – these women shouldn’t be encouraging these boys to hang about the café, annoying the visitors, it was unprofessional. The women should have encouraged them to move one. And then it dawned on me: this is the British mentality and the source of many of our problems with young people. There is a deep rooted belief in Scotland and England that children (including teenagers) should be seen and not heard. They aren’t part of our world. They should be packed off to spend time with one another, eating their junky children’s food on a tray in front of the tv, rather than be with the adults as they are on the continent. They should be hanging about in groups, or playing football, not wanting to pass the time of day with older women.

I was surprised that I held this attitude deep-down as it is not the way that I have raised my sons. This is why I was so taken aback when I realised that I thought the women in Madeira should have chased the boys away.

I remembered this incident this week because of the two events we had at the Hub called Foundations for Flourishing. One of the things which emerged strongly was that in the UK we increasingly restrict the freedom of our young children. Few now walk to school on their own or even play outside. On average children spend five and a half hours a day in front of screens. Tim Gill, an expert on children’s play asked the assembled gathering to think about their favourite place to play as a child. For just about everyone there it was outside. And when asked if it is was ‘out of sight of adults’ just about everyone over the age of 40 said it was.

However, when it comes to adolescents the picture that emerged is of them increasingly confined to their own world and excluded from adult company. For me the highlight of the two days was Dr Robert Epstein’s talk on his book ‘The End of Adolescence’. Epstein presented evidence which shows that people are at the peak of reasoning, memory and many cognitive processes when they are in their teens. He reminded us that many great figures from history were teenagers. But is that how we see them? No. I agree with Epstein that there is an increasing tendency in the west to infantilise young people. To treat them, not as the young adults they are – and so part of the adult world - but as incompetent and incapable. Outside of formal education, we confine them to the adolescent world – a world which is dominated by adverts, media and fairly trivial messages and where they are expected to learn from one another, not from the benefit of adult experience. No wonder many of them act as if they are immature and incapable. We justify our views on the grounds of hormones and other biological processes. Recently there has been lots of publicity given to research on the brain which apparently shows that young people can’t calculate risk or be empathetic. Epstein is incredibly sceptical about this claiming that we wouldn’t be alive today if teenage parents (our ancestors) did not have these skills. If teenagers’ brains are not fully formed in this way, Epstein argues, it is because of the limited experiences they now have.

My own mother left school at 14 to work in a laundry and earn her own keep. She didn’t have time to be moody or difficult as she had to earn a living. I’m not suggesting we return to this world but I do think we need to rethink our view of young people and, like the women in Madeira, welcome them into our world rather than exclude them.

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