Is it really more difficult to be a teenager today than in any previous generation? Those of us over 35 might look back and wonder if we would steer a different course given the chance to do it all again. We would possibly only take a different route with the benefit of hindsight; as a mere teenager we would possibly make the same mistakes all over again. It is only in looking back that you can see where a parents’ wisdom was about protection and concern and not about calling a halt to the party. Isn’t that why life is set up that way? The plan is that the older and wiser parent teaches the young and then sends them into the world to repeat the pattern and create a sustainable human race. Without the parent child relationship as the general norm (there will always be exceptions by circumstance or miracle) both human and animal life would be extinguished. If every baby born was left to fend for itself, it wouldn’t be long before the population would start to decrease. Even if we withdrew parenting at toddler stage; how many three year olds would survive without help? Not too long ago I caught a TV wildlife programme about lion cubs. It was fascinating to watch as the little cubs full of curiosity and fun with no apparent knowledge or regard for danger went happily about their day, while their mother was always on the lookout and highly alert to predators and risks. Just like cubs human children know little about danger and it’s the parent or adult’s job to watch and protect.

As mature adults it is all too easy to frown upon the antics of the young. We would be better served to take ourselves back to the same age and ask how we would have behaved in the same circumstance. There has been little evolution of the species in the past 2000 years. Youth is still about dodgy hormone levels. It is still full of the need to explore sexually. It is still full of angst and believing that most adults are dull and boring. It is still about wanting to have fun and play because youth always believes in plenty of time ahead. The paradox is that they are also in a tremendous hurry to grow up and become independent, believing that independence is the Holy Grail and adults are just trying to selfishly keep all the good stuff. Teenagers haven’t changed but the world has shifted.

Tragic examples

The recent road accidents that have claimed teenage lives are a tragic example of how we cannot continue to live in today’s world with legislation from forty, fifty and sometimes sixty years ago. It is wholly inadequate in many cases. In all the debate about road safety I haven’t heard anyone argue in favour of raising the driving age. (Maybe someone has but I haven’t heard it.) It is a drastic and radical move and one that would be objected to, particularly by 17 years olds about to get a car, but I would prefer annoyed teenagers than dead ones. I have no doubt that there are highly responsible teenage drivers safer and better drivers than many adults, but sadly the statistics don’t do them any favours. Let’s raise the driving age to 20 or 21. It won’t stop all deaths but it will certainly save a few. It might also mean a greater dependence on public transport which might help improve that sector also.

When the age of 17 was initially settled on there were fewer cars on the road and less powerful ones. Parental curfews were tighter and the cost of driving for many was prohibitive anyway. Today most parents believe their children to be much more mature at 17 than they were at 17. I have a problem with this view. They may be more sophisticated in how they dress, they may know more about sex and are certainly less innocent, they may have more materially but it doesn’t equate to maturity. Maturity takes time. Even science will support the fact that the brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 18. You can hot house your children all you like, but the bottom line is that you cannot teach them to be mature. Just because junior is more tech savvy than you does not mean he is necessarily wiser.

There are also less drastic measures available. Expecting 17 and 18 year olds to police themselves is ridiculous. We could make it mandatory that even fully licensed drivers under the age of 21 are only allowed a maximum of one passenger. It should be a condition of insurance and enforced heavily. Gay Byrne was seriously critiscised in the media last weekend as he said that there was nothing the Road Safety Authority could have done to have prevented the recent Kerry crash. He was called insensitive. Obviously it is a highly emotional time for anyone close to the families involved. Even for those of us just looking on, the crashes in Donegal and Kerry are the nightmares than none of us wish visited upon our homes, but sadly Gay Byrne is more right than wrong. You cannot prevent kids getting into a car and piling in their friends, oblivious to the dangers. Of course they don’t think they are doing anything wrong, of course they don’t believe that they will kill themselves and or others. These children are not bad or evil, they are just young, immature and without someone watching out for the predators and the dangers they are putting themselves at risk.

It is our job to monitor the world and teach our children how to behave in it. It is our job to assess the risks. Of course children need to be challenged, given responsibility, have to occasionally fail and deal with the consequences and all the other things associated with growing up and becoming an adult, but today we expect far too much too soon and we are paying a very costly price for it.