In the last month I’ve had the same request from three unrelated parents in entirely different locations. One parent I hadn’t heard of in well over a decade. What surprised me most was that it was the parents doing all the running, the seeking out of contacts hitherto untapped. It should have been the children – well I say children, teenagers is more accurate.
What were they asking for, these parents who so wanted to help their teenagers that they were going through their contacts minutely, firing off emails, phone calls and private messages? Work experience, that’s what they wanted for their children. They asked if I could arrange for their offspring to do some work experience at the BBC/if I knew anyone in the City (oh, only my husband, natch!) and in the fashion industry? Negative on that last one but I’ll make a few calls….
But what really set me off on the road to writing this piece was a comment from one of the mothers who casually remarked: “my daughter was lamenting that I only knew people from my own workplace (in none of the above industries) so couldn’t be of any help in fixing up work experience.” Excuse me? When did “fixing up work experience opportunities” become the responsibility of the parents instead of THE STUDENTS WANTING THE WORK EXPERIENCE? (Caps are all my own. That’s how strongly I feel about this.) When did this age of entitlement for today’s youngsters creep in?
Thirty years ago – and it must seem an age to some readers – I was one of those students needing work experience in what I hoped would eventually become my professional arena: broadcasting. I was in my second year at university and we were told we had to find ourselves some work experience for a month or so over the Easter holidays. It was up to me to find out who I had to approach, write to them (there were no emails then. Properly written letters and postage stamps were the order of the day) and then hope and wait for a reply.
Not once – not even for one nano-second – did it occur to me to ring my parents to ask whether they could help me out with this. As I was going to be home in Gibraltar for the Easter break, naturally I approached GBC, my local broadcaster for work experience opportunities. It was one of the many character-building, “standing-on-your-own-two-feet” experiences that I had to deal with as a teenager in full-time education. My parents were not involved at any time in the process. I did write to them to let them know I’d been successful in securing a month’s work experience in the GBC newsroom over the Easter break. But that was all I ever mentioned to them about the matter.
I wasn’t unique in my approach either. None of my contemporaries knew or did any differently. When we all came back from Easter break, we excitedly swapped stories of our time ‘out in the real world of work’ and what we’d learnt from it. Good, bad or indifferent.
In thinking of those parents I mentioned at the start of this piece, frantically trying to pull a favour with every possible contact they could find, I wondered whether they really thought they were doing the best for their children in ‘sorting something out for them?’ There’s no doubt at all that the three sets of parents in question love their children very much and want to do the best for them. But when does wanting to do the best for your children turn into excessive Molly-coddling? Come on all you parents reading this, be honest. Answer this:
Did you accompany your children on a familiarisation tour of potentially suitable universities? Once a university place has been secured, do you then fly with your teenager to ‘settle them in’ and in the process equip their student digs with every conceivable comfort from televisions, laptops to pots and pans? Before you leave, do you fill up one (possibly two) trolley loads of food from the local supermarket for your undergraduate as he/she surely, is entitled to have a fully-stocked fridge at the start of term? After a few weeks of term do you then find yourself sending brown paper parcels filled with love from the Rock and jamón serrano or any other of your child’s favourite delicacies that they could only get at home? Anything to mollify the yearning and homesickness that being away from home for the first time brings? Sounds familiar?
I would argue – controversially I know – that the age of entitlement is not helping our youngsters stand on their own two feet, make tough decisions and find their own way in the world. I know of numerous Gibraltarian students who never returned to university after one, two terms, their first academic year; not because they couldn’t handle the academic rigours of higher education. No, they just couldn’t hack it alone without their parents ‘taking care of everything for them.’ It is a harsh truth to acknowledge, but acknowledge it we must.
There are many Mums and Dads on the Rock who are breeding generations of men and women who are mollycoddled throughout their lives and as a result are incapable of fending for themselves or standing on their own two feet. I should add that it’s not a peculiarly Gibraltarian problem – as evidenced by the two UK parents who contacted me about work experience too – but I do see a much higher incidence of this among Gibraltarian (and other Mediterranean) families than I do in other nationalities that I’ve encountered in my working life. Under the umbrella of adoring our children, we may be erring on the side of benign neglect, if we fail to address the matter of our children’s growing independence. How? By rushing in every time they come up against a challenge – like arranging your own work experience for example – and not giving them the opportunity to work it out for themselves.
So when the three teenagers who need work experience now (and have roped in their parents to ‘sort it out for them’) need to find a job after graduating? What then? When a potential employer wants to see demonstrable evidence of initiative, get-up-and-go, gumption, resilience in a candidate, how will the sons and daughters from the age of entitlement fare?
I politely replied to the three parents who contacted me recently and gave them this advice: let your children sort this out for themselves. The best way you – and I – can help them in this endeavour is to let them stand on their own two feet. I know this approach works. My fingers are firmly crossed for all of them.