Horror aplenty is lurking uncomfortably near lives of Dutch teenagers
HAGUE LETTER:The worldwide bestselling novel The Dinner, by Herman Koch, touched a lot of raw nerves in so-called liberal Dutch society – especially in terms of the relationship between apparently well-adjusted parents and their apparently well-adjusted children.
In one passage, he describes the fashion for teenagers to call the coolest mums and dads by their first names, and observes: “It was only a small step from ‘George’ and ‘Wilma’ to ‘But I said I wanted peanut butter, didn’t I, George?”
It’s amusing – but it’s chilling too.
To their credit, the Dutch do appear to have cracked the relationship between parents and teenagers when it comes to sex. It’s about pragmatism rather than morality.
Tales of mothers buying condoms for their sons as part of the weekly shop are pored over delightedly by feature writers from more uptight countries. One of the favourites is the story of the 13-year-old girl being showered with confetti by her doting parents after announcing she’s had sex for the first time. It’s probably fair to say that it couldn’t happen in Ireland.
As an approach to sex education, it works. The Netherlands has the lowest rate of teenage pregnancy in the Western world. It dropped again last year to just five in every 1,000 – a quarter of what it was 40 years ago.
It’s all very charming and liberating, but does it mean that Dutch parents actually know their teenage children any better than, for instance, Irish parents know theirs? Unfortunately, the answer, it appears, is not at all.
It’s hardly telling any secrets to reveal that in The Dinner two well-heeled couples – one of the husbands is tipped as the next prime minister – find that their equally well-heeled, well-spoken and well-educated sons have burned alive a vagrant woman whose sleeping bag was blocking their path to an ATM machine.
The realisation comes as a moment of sheer horror – but it’s only fiction.
And yet horror there is aplenty lurking uncomfortably near the lives of real Dutch teenagers as well.
The death last week of young Tim Ribberink, the 20-year-old student who’d been relentlessly bullied over several years and whose suicide note was published by his parents in their local newspaper alongside his death notice, stopped this country in its tracks – for the third time in as many months.
Tim’s parents, Gerrit and Hetty, had no idea what was going on. His teacher training college had no idea what was going on. His secondary school had known nothing a year or two before. Yet the note he left read: “All my life I have been ridiculed, abused, bullied and excluded ...”
And police are now investigating a message purporting to come from Tim but posted online by his tormentors, saying: “I am a loser and a homo.”
Before that was the so-called “Facebook murder”. A 15-year-old Dutch-Chinese girl, Joyce Hau, known as “Winsie”, was stabbed to death on her doorstep by another 15-year-old who’s since been sent to jail.
The killer was a “hitman” allegedly paid €20 by former friends with whom she’d fallen out on Facebook.
Winsie’s father, Chun Nam Hau, was seriously injured as he tried to save her. He’d known nothing about his daughter’s falling-out until her killer was at their door. And like Gerrit and Hetty Ribberink, he too demanded tougher action against bullies.
Less serious – to the extent at least that nobody died – was the infamous Project X party in the town of Haren, in September.
Riot police clashed with more than 3,000 troublemakers who descended on a 16th birthday party for Merthe Weusthuis, after she innocently posted an invitation to her friends on Facebook.
Horrified by the snowball effect online, she told her parents, who alerted the police, and moved the family out of the house. It was, in effect, mass bullying of a 16-year-old girl.
These real-life stories are causing what could become a sea-change in the relationship between Dutch teenagers and their parents – who are belatedly realising that, having successfully taken care of sexual prudishness, they’ve only scratched the surface of their offsprings’ secret lives.
“At least when a boyfriend or a girlfriend stays over, we know where they both are,” says one parent, with only a trace of irony. “Now, having seen these stories, we wonder where they are and what they’re doing when they’re not upstairs.
Some are even wondering if removing morality from sex has made it seem less relevant to other areas of life as well – and what effect that will have on the values, or lack of them, of a new Dutch generation.