Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Teens and the web

Catholic Herald 24 February 2006

Children are learning social skills via the internet? Teenagers whose days are spent bathed in a cold blue glow are learning to “make friends and form new relationships”? My scepticism programming went into action as soon as I read this in The Times.

And sure enough, the claim was made on behalf of a study of a teenagers’ chat room website which is owned by News International, the organisation which also owns…The Times.

On the other hand, according to a report by the London School of Economics, which as far as I know is not yet owned by News International, the explosion of internet use by teenagers is almost replacing face-to-face social contact. Youngsters prefer talking via mobile phone or MSN (instant messaging) to actually… talking.

And although most of them communicate largely with local friends, they all nearly all have “internet friends” they know nothing about – and over 40 percent admit to lying about themselves on the internet.

It was so different in my day. Social contact for me meant the ritual of the Home Counties teenagers’ party. Long before the internet, mothers had access to a virtual, unwritten list of all the “nice” young people in the area. “Nice” meant that you went to boarding school, your Daddy worked in the City and your home had a large lawn and probably an inglenook fireplace, maybe a Labrador or two. Or, at least it meant you could pass for such.

Thus nailed, you were herded into a barn full of flashing lights and 50 others gathered in tight, unyielding groups of strangers who all knew each other (they shared dorms) and, unlike you, were in jeans. (That floor length tartan taffeta dress looked so sweet in the mirror at home.)

Somehow, despite having a small lawn, no Labrador and being at day schools, my brother and I were sucked into this list and found ourselves being invited to parties in muddy barns on the far side of Hertfordshire, hosted by teenagers we’d never met, of whose parents our own parents knew nothing.

Not surprisingly, we found ourselves rubbing shoulders with some fairly odd people. Every party seemed to have, unbeknown to the hosts, its resident drug dealer and serial adulterer-in-training, slouched, glowering and unapproachable (at least to my unsophisticated grammar school girl’s eyes) beside the mobile disco. Essex not being far away, rumours would flutter around as to how so-and-so’s Daddy had made all his money.

The parents usually made sure there was a quieter room where we could have “conversation”. Conversation? As long as the lights were on, we were tongue-tied, reduced to asking each other what O-levels we were taking. The boys, accustomed to girls being glimpsed only through barbed-wire fences, regarded us as hostile aliens. A virulent mixture of fear and contempt set their hairless faces into a mask of indifference, punctuated by the occasional catty remark.

Our parents thought they were “shy”. We knew better, especially when the lights went off. The only worthwhile thing ever to come out of these horrible parties was the occasional exchanging of addresses with some less threatening youth, and the glorious anticipation of – oh joy! – an actual letter in the post.

And so I salute today’s teens for avoiding the cattle-market, and concentrating on the writing of letters. Endless letters. Often secret, often indiscreet, many-coloured and adorned with animated “smileys” and mottos. It’s an MSN world.

So they make up facts about themselves? How many kids at those parties I endured laid claim to social pretensions they did not have?

So today’s teens meet people their parents have not vetted? Who vetted the guest lists of the houses at whose doors my parents would trustingly deposit me at 8pm?

Many admirable new initiatives aimed at young people are entirely internet-based – the World Youth Alliance, which lobbies the UN in the name of “dignity of the human person, solidarity between the developed and developing worlds and the culture of life” would not have grown except by email. I would love to see an internet chat room for Catholic teens, though it would probably be impossible to police.

We have to be able to trust our teenagers, now as then. Catholics have the great advantage of a clear moral system – children brought up within that system should be easier to trust than others, though we rarely see it that way. Whether subjected to trial by disco or trial by chat room, they still need that system to fall back on to help them say “no” to the wrong things and “yes” to the right things. Wherever they are.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Home Front 17 Feb 2006 Catholic Herald

“How would you feel,” a forceful secular friend said, “if your child was ill, and you took him to a hospital, and they turned you away saying the hospital was only for Muslims?”

The resentment of non-Christian parents towards church schools has to be felt to be believed. It is especially strong among London-dwelling, professional non-Christians – exactly the kind of people who make our laws, or are close to those who make our laws, or who meet up socially with the kind of people who make our laws, and nag them over dinner.

Dinner-party wisdom maintains that church schools select pupils from middle class backgrounds: this is believed in the face of the fact that any successful school, of any type, automatically attracts more affluent families.

Dinner-party wisdom responds to the conundrum of how requiring prospective pupils to prove that they go to church can make a school more middle class, when Christianity is so rare among the professional classes, with a vague, “Ah, but it’s the interviews, you see.”

There is no evidence, no academic study, existing to prove that interviews are responsible for any middle-class bias in church schools, if it exists. All the interviews I have ever been involved with seemed to me rather to prove the opposite. The church school interview must be the only educational practice to have been abolished without any proper examination of its purpose, efficacy or fairness.

Since we are now seeing the passing, almost unmarked, of a custom, let me tell you, as a parent who has been on both sides of the fence, what this allegedly abused practice actually amounted to.

You and your child sit down with a teacher who asks your child a series of questions which, if your child goes to church regularly, are a doddle. If your child does not go to church regularly, then he or she will flounder. That’s about it.

Yes, occasionally, other questions – hobbies, other schools applied to – float in. They should not have been allowed to. If the bishops had set down some firm guidelines for interviews instead of cravenly allowing the practice to be abolished, we would still be able to sort out the children who deserve places at faith schools from those who fib for England.

I have never seen interviews used to “catch children out”: on the contrary, I have seen one inspired headteacher use what I later realised was a hypnotherapy technique: she told the child to close her eyes and imagine she was in church, saying responses along with the rest of the congregation. If the responses are there in the child’s memory, they will spring to her lips like magic. If they are not in her memory, they won’t.

By contrast, this year, 11 year olds applying to popular Catholic schools had a written test: they had to complete a couple of Catholic prayers and name some holy days of obligation. Now, it is clear that children who are less confident on paper than in speech are at an instant disadvantage; and no child ever remembers about Corpus Christi. Worst of all, there is no opportunity for the school to check up on the claims parents made in their written forms.

A system based solely on form-filling and reference-hunting plays to middle class strengths, and as a result, the powerful people who want to abolish state-funded faith schools completely will, very soon, be able to claim that “even after reform” the church schools are “still” showing bias to the middle classes, and therefore should have all admissions powers taken from them.

To return to the striking hospital analogy made by my eloquent secular friend. What in fact happens in state education now is more akin to taking your child to a hospital and being told, “We did have the world’s best expert on your child’s condition here last year. But he’s working in the private sector now.”

Unchecked and almost unregulated, private schools continue to drain state schools of their best staff, their language teachers and their more highly motivated families. If the dinner-party sages were to give half the energy they devote to destroying the ethos of faith schools (which actually work) to the task of forcing private schools to share their privileges, education in Britain would have a hope.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

National Marriage Week

Home Front: Catholic Herald 17/02/06

“There is no reciprocity. Men love women, women love children, and children love hamsters,” observed Alice Thomas Ellis. There have been fewer funnier words written on the subject of love; even if you don’t particularly agree with the late Catholic novelist’s gloomy viewpoint, there have been fewer judgements on love that so well express how love, contrary to a million second rate poets, is inexorably enmeshed with the world outside.

And bearing that in mind, was it really such a great idea to have National Marriage Week coincide with St Valentine’s Day?

I know exactly how such a decision was reached. It seemed perfectly obvious and fitting, in the quiet decency of a committee room, to fix on 7-14 February. What a good idea, somebody said, to “peg” (as they say in newspapers) the idea of celebrating marriage to a nationally recognised calendar moment connected with love.

Unfortunately, St Valentine’s Day is not so much a saint’s day, more a nasty rash. It is not just that grocery shelves, sweetshops stationer’s and florist’s blister into lurid red and pink for the whole first half of February. Think, too, if you dare, of the millions of excruciating teenage parties and minor humiliations which it engenders celebrate very little: not so much love, as lerve. A manufactured saccharine substitute with little reference to the whole package of life for which love serves as the motor and energy – little reference, in other words, to the children of Alice Thomas Ellis’s maxim. Let alone the hamsters.

There could have been other, equally suitable choices for National Marriage Week: it could have been arranged to coincide with the feast days of St Joseph (mid March), St Barbara (early December – a good way of strengthening us against the marital tensions of Christmas) or St Thomas the Apostle (early July – a great time for a picnic). All of these saints have a special relationship with carpenters, and therefore could claim to be patron saints of DIY.

For is not DIY painfully important in marriage? Not only because it takes up a large amount of free time at the beginning of married life; also because it reveals every tension. One of the happiest half hours of my marriage in the past year was when we managed to dismantle a small settee and manoeuvre it through a narrow doorway, down the stairs and into another room before reassembling it, not only without damaging anything on the way but, more importantly, without bickering once. There are many couples for whom this seems hardly much of an achievement but we do not happen to be one of those couples: on the contrary, any practical activity seems to bring out the worst in both of us.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” says one self-help book. Actually, no. Do. Do sweat the small stuff. Never mind that some self-help guru has made himself a tidy packet from that single mantra. He is wrong, wrong, wrong. The small stuff matters. The small stuff matters with children – children care about daily routines and care desperately if you change things. (Let those who urge a return to more traditional forms of worship remember this: what seems a painful innovation to you is an age-old ritual to my child.) Children notice tiny shifts in your voice and posture, little changes betraying anger or pain which you thought nobody would notice, which would have escaped the eye of your boss at work. And the small stuff matters with marriage, too.

It is the little things – whether small achievements like getting a sofa down the stairs without raised voices, or small irritations such as persistent toothpaste-lid-duty-dereliction or chronic sock-strewing – which make the big picture.

At a very beautiful funeral last weekend, the poem “Adjustments” by R. S. Thomas was read, and it will reverberate in my head all through National Marriage Week:

“…Never known as anything
but an absence, I dare not name him
As God. Yet the adjustments
Are made…
To make a new coat
Of an old, you add to it gradually
Thread by thread, so such change
As occurs is more difficult to detect.”

If you imagine you are the same person you were when you were married umpteen years ago, you imagine wrongly. For if you have been happily married, you have changed, gradually, imperceptibly, weaving and grafting, thread by thread, the fabric of your two personas together to make one seamless piece of cloth, whose complexity cannot be expressed by a pink and red “Happy Valentine’s Day” card.