When I was your age…

Yesterday and tomorrowWhenever adults (primarily parents or teachers) talk about kids, it usually begins with, “Kids these days…”. They talk about kids these days having gotten everything all messed up. Or that kids these days just aren’t what they used to be. There is of course the usual  talk of lack of “respect” or “responsibility” and the mandatory flashbacks into their time, usually beginning with, “When we were younger…”

Adults love to begin sentences with, “When I was your age…” We have all heard our versions of: “When I was your age, children knew to respect their parents. We owned up to our responsibilities. We took advantage of our opportunities. We made our own road…”

The thing about teaching is that you end up spending a lot of time with children and adults alike. And your mind is throwing you in entirely opposite directions. Among adults, there is usually a covert and mostly an overt condescension of the times we live in, the access (and often luxury) that children have, and the scant regard they have for their resources or the abundance of it. Among children, it is often how adults don’t get them.

I don’t know whether it’s because I have a small child (he is five going on six) and that growing down with him has significantly helped in parenting, but I find myself veering towards the children and I often wonder what the adults are bemoaning.

Our parents did it to us:

“Do you know I had to walk six kilometres and them swim a river to get to school?”, my father would say.  “We had to stitch our own clothes and wear them till they were threadbare,” my mother would add.

And we do it to our children:

“Do you know your father works 16 hours a day so we can give you this education?

“Do you know that we didn’t have television in our house till we were in college? And even that one didn’t have a remote control?”

“Do you know that I had to wait till I got a job to get a mobile phone”

“We never had any toys or puzzles; we just played with mud, stones and leaves!”

Can it really be that every generation is so profoundly different? How can the past always be ‘the good old days’ or ‘tough old days’? Why is now never romantic or perfect? What is this obsession with nostalgia to feel good about ourselves, the things we do and how we do them?

The further away we get from the here and now, the more our perspective becomes skewed. In our reminiscing, we compare what we see to our so-called memories, not to facts. We see it all through the veil of ourselves, our own lives, our own transitions, our own selective remembering. It’s convenient, really. And isn’t it nicer to think that you were once better than all that?

It’s convenient to take the easy way out and look at all the signs that point to the shocking newness of the present moment—the power of social media; the seeming abundance of choices for today’s youth that make the options of yore seem quaint.

But then, wouldn’t the first telephone and television have caused a similar agony among our ancestors?

It reminds me of the last few lines of Shel Silverstein‘s poem, “When I was your age”

 My uncle said, “How old are you?”
I said, “Nine and a half,” and then
My uncle puffed out his chest and said,
“When I was your age… I was ten.”

In these lines lies the problem with our memory of the past. You can idealize the good old days and bemoan the sorry state of today’s youth. You can point out how much harder it was in the past and how easy everyone has it now. Whatever your version, one thing is clear: our memory becomes warped over time.

The truth is, we grow up when we need to grow up. And growing up is hard. It has always been. It will always be. Humans are unusually good at stepping up when they need to, at taking on responsibility and living up to expectations when circumstances call. But they should truly call for it to happen. Becoming an adult is not just a necessity, it’s also a choice.

But for the children of today, there’s less of a hurry. They don’t need to help on the family rice fields, take over the family cloth business. They’ll grow up when they need to. And if they have the leisure of prolonging that moment of not-quite-adulthood, who are we to blame them for taking advantage of it? They have the leisure of choice. But is it their fault?


(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 2nd March, 2015)