Having my kids arrested was the best €20 I ever spent

We are raising a generation of super-confident, cosseted monsters

When they were released an hour later, clutching their charge sheets (“breaking and entering” and “possession of a dangerous weapon”, since you ask), they declared it the best morning of their lives. Photograph: Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters

When they were released an hour later, clutching their charge sheets (“breaking and entering” and “possession of a dangerous weapon”, since you ask), they declared it the best morning of their lives. Photograph: Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters

Wed, Nov 27, 2013, 07:38

Last week, I had my children arrested. They were lined up, stripped of their backpacks, yelled at, and locked into a pitch-black cell with a bunch of strangers and a single, unsavoury toilet cistern.

When they were released an hour later, clutching their charge sheets (“breaking and entering” and “possession of a dangerous weapon”, since you ask), they declared it the best morning of their lives. And it cost me only €20.

The woman selling tickets to the Crime and Justice Experience at the Old Melbourne Gaol warned me that the simulated arrest and processing – which is overseen by an actual former jail sergeant – could be distressing. But my kids were enthusiastic: the prospect of being shouted at by a grown-up who wasn’t immediately related to them struck them as thrillingly novel.

In the end, I went along with it on the basis that it might deter them from a life of crime – and if not, it should provide a welcome respite from the non-stop coddling they get in almost every other aspect of their lives.

From the no-party-invitations rule in operation in most school playgrounds, to the well-meaning but misguided medals-for-everyone policy on sports day, my children’s generation might be the most cocooned in history. They saunter through life, protected at every turn from upset and disappointment, winning awards just for turning up and convinced they are gifted at everything they do. (Yes, there are children in every society experiencing genuine hardships like hunger or abuse, but I’m talking here about the cushioned element in the western world – the ones for whom a low-battery sign on their iPod is a crisis.)

I’m not totally inhuman. I don’t want to see my children disappointed, distressed or discouraged. I’m not advocating a return to a society where the education system seemed designed to temper instead of foster ambition. But instead of trying to strike a happy medium, we seem to have reacted to past wrongs by trying to shield the next generation from every adversity. What we are really trying to protect them from is life – and that’s not much of a strategy for the long term.


An American cult
We have bought into the cult of self-esteem, a largely-American import whose long-term effects are only now being felt there. Writing about proposed education reforms in the New York Times last week, columnist Frank Bruni bemoaned a society that keeps handing children “prophylactic(s) against disappointment”, a society in which “praise is promiscuous”.

The problems with this strategy of constant cosseting only become apparent when kids have to shake off the cotton wool to enter the workplace.

Here in Australia, the question of how to attract and pander to the feckless, restless, pampered “Gen-Y” employee is rarely out of the media. (This week’s headlines: “Gen Y has little understanding of financial planning, struggles with debt: study”; “Gen Y: the fickle, pickle generation”).

According to research by consultancy McCrindle, Australia’s typical Gen Y employee will average a whopping four different careers and 17 employers in their lifetime, lasting two years at a job. To retain them, it suggests employers will need to invest in “ping-pong tables, lunch (and breakfast) rooms, mini-nap spaces, time-out rooms . . . green spaces”.

In Ireland, the homegrown version of Gen Y is surfacing into a very different climate. They may not have developed resilience at school, but, faced with unemployment, emigration or a future of unpaid internships, they have little choice but to develop it now.

If there is a silver lining to this rotten scenario, it is that they may emerge as stronger, more resourceful (and less indebted) individuals than those of us who came of age when mortgages were handed around like party bags, or their contemporaries elsewhere in the world, who won’t get out of bed for less than a ping-pong table and a half-hourly pat on the head.

The parents preparing to launch Gen Z – what Bruni calls “generation coddled” – on the world have a choice. We can go on as we are, raising a generation of super-confident, cosseted monsters, or we can try to inject a little balance, and recognise that learning to deal with inconvenience, disappointment and failure is part of growing up. (Occasional periods of involuntary detention recommended but not obligatory.)

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