Why I’m so grateful not to be a 1950s parent

Sadie Jones' The Outcast paints a bleak picture of 1950s parenting.

Sadie Jones’ The Outcast paints a bleak picture of 1950s parenting.

If we had a penny for every time someone muttered something like “children have too many rights these days,” or “in my day a good clip around the ear would sort it out,” we’d all be paying off our mortgages sooner and eyeing up a nice early retirement.

These sorts of clichés, regularly (though not exclusively) trotted out by our older generation never disappear, no matter what era we’re in. It’s just not helpful that today we have certain corners of the mainstream media (did someone mention the Daily Mail), are eager to reinforce this message.

And although I’m the ultimate bleeding heart liberal, there have been times when I’ve been mildly sympathetic to that view. Like when your two-year-old decides to have a meltdown because you gave them a red lollipop instead of a green lollipop just at the moment you’re getting on the bus. Staring at the face of that situation it’s natural to question whether a dose of old-fashioned discipline might be more effective than reasoning with your terrorist tot.

Or when you regularly receive smart-arse responses from your five-year old, every time you lazily churn out your parents’ old lines like “don’t answer back” or “don’t be cheeky”, it’s tempting to long nostalgically for a time when kids respected their elders. God damn it!

Because wasn’t everything just fine and dandy in the 1950s when children did what they were told and always minded their manners, while roaming the countryside and riding bikes without wearing helmets?

Except it wasn’t quite like that, was it? And last night’s BBC1 drama The Outcast powerfully revealed the dark side of life as a troubled child within a respectable 1950s community and the damage that can be done by denying our young people the right to a voice.

It was a disturbing tale that was incredibly difficult to watch, particularly for any parent. But I was very glad I did because it made me feel intensely grateful for my own 1980s childhood and that my own son is growing up in progressive, liberal society that grants children rights.

Some people may maintain that the balance has been tipped too far in favour of the child, and they may have a point, but I would urge anyone who holds that view to watch this drama because it artfully demonstrates that when adults hold all the power, we leave our children exposed to potential psychological damage and exploitation. And that’s not good for any society.

The Outcast is based on a novel by Sadie Jones, which I confess I hadn’t heard of until I saw last night’s screen adaptation. If you missed it, here’s a recap:

Ten-year-old Lewis, witnesses his mother drowning in a local pond. Naturally, he is traumatised by the incident but is denied any opportunity to talk about it beyond a slightly aggressive police interview in which he is pressurised to recall events.

With his mother barely cold in her grave, his father announces that he is to have a new mother and he is to simply get on with it and not let him down.  We see Lewis’ first emotional outburst after this news. He trashes the room and neither his father nor his nanny have any idea what to do with him.

We witness Lewis grow up and feel intense frustration at the many moments when someone could extend a bit of empathy and understanding but instead treat him with a coolness and distance that is less a failing of those individuals but more a product of the society they inhabit.

He does eventually find an outlet for his emotional pain, seeking solace in a smoky jazz bar and finding comfort at the bottom of a glass and in the arms of a hooker. Worse than this, he begins harming himself. It’s difficult to feel any optimism for this character’s future.

It’s a tragic tale but the true tragedy is experienced by the one who was left behind. As the story is told from Lewis’s point of view we can see and feel his pain, which makes it harder to watch his family and community turn their backs on him as his increasingly erratic behaviour compounds their simplistic views that he is simply a wrong ‘un.

Of course Lewises can be plentiful in society today but what is so different about today’s social environment is we are permitted and encouraged to talk. In fact you can’t open a newspaper without a celebrity confessing to some sort of mental health disorder.

I would like to believe that there would be support for a child who’d witnessed a trauma. I think also, and rightly, that in a scenario like this, children’s needs would be put before the adults. He would be offered counselling.

Would it fix everything? Maybe not but it would be a good start.

Of course, there are no guarantees that a bit of counselling would have prevented the self-harm that followed, given that this unsettling behaviour is increasingly prevalent among young people today. But while self-harm is still a bit taboo, at least most parents would be aware that it goes on and understand that help would need to be sought rather than judge the act to be some sort of crime, further pushing that needy young person deeper into a spiral of despair. However, given that suicide was a criminal act until 1961, we can of course forgive our 1950s counterparts for a less tolerant view.

Judging by that oracle of popular opinion that is Twitter, many, many viewers were also disturbed by the Outcast, finding it heart-breaking and bleak and depressing, to quote many an armchair reviewer. I was shocked by it. But I think our collective reaction to it as parents, as children, demonstrates that we have succeeded in creating a nicer, more empathetic, and more tolerant world, and that is something to be proud of.

2015, though not without its issues, is definitely a better place to be a child.

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