ESSAY: Young people need a return to normal – Now

Resilience and wi-fi are not enough to save children from the effects of a socially-distanced world

This time last year, I felt fortunate to be among a minority of academics able to teach students on campus. The experience was pretty weird. I was standing several metres away from new undergraduates, bellowing through a plastic face visor, encouraging them to ask questions or discuss issues with each other as they sat in spaced-out rows, muffled by masks. Our friendly, open campus was uptight and subdued.

But for all that, the six weeks before we were plunged back into lockdown allowed us to forge something of the academic community we had previously taken for granted, and carried us through the subsequent, alienating ‘online experience’.

“We left children stranded in the limbo of the immediate, with little thought about what they would become.”

This term, we meet again – and what a transformation. Seminars include the buzz of conversation, and faces show the signs of comprehension, confusion, and connection. The new students need little encouragement to chat, and there are queues for coffee again. It feels a lot more normal – and if things can keep going in this direction, I reckon we’ll be all right.

As the UK slowly slips off the shackles of COVID-19 restrictions, there has been endless fretting about how we’ll cope with normal ways of behaviour again. Some schools, colleges and universities seem almost hostile to the very thought of going back to the way we used to interact and are clinging on to the virtual learning, mask-wearing, and social-distancing measures, although these are no longer mandated by law.

There’s a sentiment that spontaneity, conversation, and open-faced communication are naïve and outdated at best; reckless and intimidating at worst. That way of looking at things presents the ‘old normal’ as threatening and destructive and the ‘new normal’ as a safe space for those who feel the need to cling to the odd behaviours we have adopted over the past 18 months. The assumption seems to be that none of these odd behaviours causes any harm, so what do we have to lose?

Well, as Joni Mitchell sang in a different context, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got / Til it’s gone’. The evidence is now rolling in about the damage caused by COVID-19 restrictions to myriad aspects of social life, and to physical and mental health. The impact on children has been stark – for reasons that should not surprise us.

In the sociology of childhood, it has become fashionable to talk about the need to treat children as ‘beings’ rather than ‘becomings’. Our ancestors, it is said, focused too much attention on what kind of adults we wanted children to become, rather than listening to their views, concerns, and experiences as the children they are. The pandemic has shown this to be a false dichotomy: once it broke, we simultaneously suspended concern about children’s present and their future.

The very project of raising children involves socialising them into our world. We educate them about the knowledge we have gained, encourage them to interact with adults and peers outside their immediate families, and push them to develop a sense of independence and responsibility for others. For several months, we stopped doing that. We left them stranded in the limbo of the immediate, with little thought about what they would become.

“The precondition for any kind of solution to the social and emotional difficulties provoked by the pandemic is to encourage normal human interaction as swiftly and comprehensively as possible.”

Nor did we care very much about how they were. Before COVID, many commentators and campaigners claimed that young people were being pushed to the brink by the pressure of classroom tests or social media trends and demanded that we focus more on children’s happiness and wellbeing. In justifying the lockdowns, many of these same voices did an about-turn and emphasised children’s ‘resilience’, the potential of WiFi for keeping people connected, and the opportunities afforded the disarray caused by cancelling exams and school closures for ‘thinking differently’ about education.

Children are too often presented as mere puppets, expected to dance to whatever tune adults expect them to. This indicates how lightly we have taken our own responsibilities towards educating and socialising the younger generation. Our continuing reluctance to get back to normal expectations and freedoms indicates a callous disregard about how destabilising these past few months have been for our kids and our responsibility as adults to fix it.

So how do we fix it? For some young people, the problems are complex and require specialised services and support. This means finding the resources and the will to give the right kind of support to the individuals who need it.

But for most, the solution is more straightforward and requires input from all of us. The precondition for any kind of solution to the social and emotional difficulties provoked by the pandemic is to encourage normal human interaction as swiftly and comprehensively as possible. That means allowing children the freedom to be, and also taking more responsibility for what they will become. We do that by keeping schools, colleges and universities open, ditching the peculiar COVID rules and behaviours, and encouraging youngsters to look towards the future rather than worry about every daily activity.

Getting children’s lives back to normal is really not that complicated – we just need to stop being weird.

Originally published at Spiked Online, 7 October 2021. Republished with the author’s permission.

Jennie Bristow is senior lecturer in sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University and is on the editorial board of Collateral Global. She will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas on 9 October, on the topic ‘Pandemic Or Pandæmonium: Are The Kids Alright?

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