In England, the extended family has become less extended than it used to be. Grandparents often get shoved into old peoples’ homes and children and young people choose to spend more time online than talking to granny. When I was young my grandparents were too far away to see often, but I had a godmother with whom I had to have tea once a week after school. I can’t really remember whether I initially wanted to go or not, but I was soon convinced by the wonderful selection of biscuits and cake and sweet drinks which she set out. She had a cupboard of toys and I could go and choose. As I got older, we played card games. She was a very wise lady, reserved, totally calm. I can’t remember any single piece of wisdom I got from her, but I remember mostly the attention she paid to me: the non-judging, calm interest, and the quiet love behind it. I think a child really needs a mentor, a person outside their immediate family whom they can trust and can talk to about issues which they can’t resolve with their parents. This need doesn’t go away when they reach teenager-hood, and maybe it gets more important then. (I was cast loose by my parents when I was 16, as my mother died, but an exciting new life took over, with great new relationships to support me.)
The middle teenage years and the time up until one goes into full-time employment seem to me the most exciting and turbulent time of life emotionally, and one to be lived fully, drunk deeply. The ups and downs of teenagerhood can seem extreme.
I would like to understand better how other people were cared for during their growing years. Does a supportive adult outside the immediate family play a role in most people’s growing-up? How has that changed over the last few decades? The Internet might suck our children’s attention into their computer screens, but it doesn’t change their emotional needs. So where do today’s teenagers get the emotional support they need and the wisdom that they will need? Can the Internet have a positive role to play here, as well as the negative tendancy to diminish social contact with older people?
I have always wanted to be a godparent, and it’s been one of the disappointments of life that no-one has ever asked me to take that role. Godparents are of course a mixed bag. I’ve had three, only one of whom I can really even remember. My children have 10 between them. We chose them with as much care as we could, but only two or three of them have been any good. It’s obviously not an easy thing to get right, nor an easy role to fulfil.
In addition to the normal banter of our social-networking friendships, I have been talking to some of my younger social networking contacts about issues they have in their lives. I didn’t set out looking for mentoring-type relationships at all, and in fact I generally steer clear of younger contacts so that I can behave badly online without corrupting children. However a few carefully-chosen such contacts have really added a special element to social networking for me. It’s a far cry from godparenting with the commitments which that implies, but it’s not unrelated. It’s almost tempting to think of setting up a service to put wise old folk in touch with needy teenagers; for about a second. I think such contacts are much more personal (spiritual) than would be best served by an on-line matchmaking service. Vouching for the wizened wisearses would be impossibly dicey, with reputation scores being impracticable, and all sorts of undesirable results possible. However, I do think that social network sites can provide places where such contacts can be made, slowly and carefully.
The flip side of all this is that one has to be careful not to end up letting the activity of supporting others drown out the support one needs oneself. I use social networking for amusement and to let out my own feelings, and gain a supportive buzz from my online friends. Other people have told me that sometimes this can become a real burden. Just as in the rest of life, a healthy balance is needed.
It does seem that demand outstrips supply in this market! I wonder if this will change over the next decades. There are lots of wise old folk out there who are also lonely. Perhaps as the population ages, older people will become sufficiently computer literate to get connected with younger folk looking for advice and support. This is an outcome devoutly to be wished.