(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, October 26.)
WHY DO young men die thinking they can outrun the police? Why do they risk their lives drag racing?
Teenage testosterone provides only part of the answer. Young men have always felt the need to prove themselves, but not with the fatal consequences we commonly see now.
I wonder if it’s because the current generation of young males – the so-called cotton-wool kids – grew up with little concept of risk.
Previous generations of boys climbed trees, explored the countryside on long bike rides, swam in rivers and hunted possums or rabbits. As a boy, I would disappear from home on a Saturday morning, as would many of my friends, and not return until dinnertime.
Often my parents had no idea where I’d been all day. It wasn’t that they were irresponsible or uncaring; far from it. It’s just that like most parents, they give us freedom to roam and accepted that we would sometimes get into mischief. It was called growing up.
Here’s the point: if you went swimming and got caught in a deep hole, if you got stuck up a tree because you’d climbed too high, or if you hitch-hiked somewhere and got picked up by a dodgy driver and wondered whether you’d get out of the car alive, you learned about risks and consequences.
A few sharp whacks with a cane also served as a sharp reminder that there were penalties for overstepping the mark, though I’m not necessarily recommending the re-introduction of corporal punishment in schools.
I know this sounds like a bit of misty-eyed “good old days” nostalgia, but compare that with the generation growing up now.
They play in parks where the ground is padded so they won’t hurt themselves if they fall. (Lesson? There’s no pain penalty, such as a broken arm, for over-reaching yourself.) Rough-and-tumble boys’ play at school is discouraged, if not outlawed, as is tree-climbing. Children are even prohibited by law from having early-morning paper rounds.
Over-protective mothers won’t allow children to make their own way to school for fear they’ll be abducted or molested. Most of their entertainment is of the indoor variety, where the worst that can happen, if they get something wrong, is that they are terminated on a PlayStation screen. And they don’t ride bikes, either because it’s uncool or seen as dangerous.
Children of the current generation grow up with little chance to test themselves and learn their limits. It’s small wonder that, as a consequence, they cut loose as soon as they’re old enough to exercise freedom. Trouble is, they then explore their limitations driving high-performance Subarus and Mazdas, often bought for them by indulgent parents, rather than on push bikes.
They don’t seem programmed to calculate risk. The warning light that should start flashing in their brain when the speedometer needle hits 140 khm has been de-activated. How else can we explain the fact that young men choose the possibility of a violent death in a high-speed crash over the temporary inconvenience of a traffic ticket?
The same explanation may apply to binge-drinking, particularly by teenage girls. Auckland academic Michael Duncan reckons the reason so many young women get plastered is that they come from middle-class homes where they were brought up on a diet of safety.
Raised by obsessively risk-averse parents, they rebel by living dangerously. “Drinking sessions for them are a high-wire act, full of exhilarating fear and unanswered questions,” writes Duncan. Brought up on safety, they hunger for risk.
Now I admit these are just theories. I can’t cite authoritative academic studies to back them. But does anyone else have a better explanation?
* * *
FORTUNATELY there are pockets of stubborn resistance to the prevailing cotton-wool culture. I was thrilled to see a poster in my Masterton doctor’s surgery advertising a “take a kid hunting” competition, sponsored by a rural Wairarapa school.
Intrigued, I checked out the school’s impressive website and learned that the competition is open to everyone down to pre-schoolers, who are invited to shoot rats, mice, magpies, possums, rabbits, hares and turkeys. For older kids the range of eligible game is extended to include wild boars, deer (stags only) and billy goats, or they can enter a “3 bag combo”.
Entrants are required to be accompanied by an adult but must participate in the hunting themselves. Prizes include an overnight guided pig hunt. Marvellous!
This is a magnificent gesture of defiance against the po-faced, pursed-lip, tut-tut culture of preciousness that threatens to swamp us all. It shows that the traditional spirit of rural New Zealand is alive and well. I amused myself for hours imagining the reaction if the “take a kid hunting” poster had appeared on the wall of a school in Wadestown, Kelburn or Island Bay.
You’re probably curious to know the name of the school but I’m not telling, because I know there would be a convoy of protest vehicles winding over the Rimutakas before you could say Barry Crump.