We had visitors at the weekend. They’d been to a family reunion where some of their relatives were very old. One of our guests said she’d enjoyed hearing some of an uncle’s reminiscences and about the hardships he’d experienced, without complaining. She felt that younger members of the family had no idea what his life was like at their age. I agreed with our guest that there’s an enormous difference between today’s young people’s expectations and those of their great-grandparents. We wondered how some of the young people we know would cope if they had to do without many of the things they take for granted, like a varied diet, central heating, washing machines and fridges, cars and televisions. Have we produced a lot of softies, we wondered?
Once you start on this theme, it’s easy to sound like the Four Yorkshireman in the Monty Python sketch that ends, “I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work,” and so on, then “And you try and tell the young people of today that … they won’t believe you.”
I do sometimes wonder, however, about today’s young people in the developed world and their discomfort and frustration threshold. I remember an older friend, years ago, telling me that the difficulties I was experiencing at the time were “character building”. It’s not just our experiences that make us who we are; it’s how we deal with them. Maybe, if some young people are softies, it’s because their parents and grandparents have shielded them from any kind of hardship and have given them more toys and gifts than any child could possibly need, even if they think they want them, so that they haven’t had a chance to grow up.
The Swedish writer Ellen Key wrote, “At every step the child should learn the real experiences of life; the thorns should never be plucked from the roses.” Maybe we wouldn’t want today’s children to endure the hardships that many experienced before and during the war, but perhaps some might benefit from what my mum called “ a little healthy neglect”.