I was sunk in a velvet couch having a glass of ruby wine with an old friend a couple of Covid-19 nights ago when, like a steering wheel being wrenched to the side by a madman hitchhiker, the conversation was violently twisted from cosy familiartudes and warm bagatelles, to teenage suicide.
It wasn’t a topic I’d expected. My friend – a beautiful and statuesque Greek woman, the child of highly literate parents, accomplished in her own right, and married to a talented and caring man – had been just as full of laughter and glittering smiles as ever.
But then, she just dropped it. Like a platter of food smashed forcefully on the ground, the confection of our conversational banquet in ruins. Her 14 year-old daughter had tried to kill herself, just days before. My friend’s smile crumpled and her acorn eyes washed over with the pain. If not a parent’s absolute worst nightmare, this is close.
Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet
Why do children from apparently happy, loving, and materially comfortable families in wealthy countries kill themselves? When lives have been constructed and ornamented so carefully, like the childhood bedrooms of our middle-class kids, to dispel the outside world or keep it at bay, and there seems so little room for despair, why do children kill themselves? It is a spectre that hovers over us, and it’s an issue whetted by the incipient generalised despair of the pandemic.
When on a visit to Australia last year, I was morbidly taken by the suicide of five Aboriginal girls in the space of nine days across Australia. The indigenous community endures suicide rates three times greater than the community as a whole. These children were aged from 12 to 17. One girl left a note describing how she’d been bullied. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Aboriginal children between 5 and 17.
I felt despair at the time for the suffering that must have led to these deaths, and that this should happen in so self-satisfied and wealthy a state as ours. As I read further, I realised that it was a blight that snatched Aboriginal children even well before the onset of puberty, when they were still truly childlike. But the circumstances of those suicides, I would argue, are largely different from those of my friend's child.
I once blogged briefly about the birth of my own daughter: “When the nurse passed her apple crumble body into my hands, I became a new man… Within moments of her warm body combining with earth’s atmosphere, I was wrenched from devil-may-care lone man, to sentinel father. That doughy fragrance stoked a potion of oxytocin, glucocorticoids, oestrogen, and prolactin that burnished my brain, and flushed all those roaming lone instincts away, a Valentine’s Day Massacre of my man-cave self.”
We have known for a long time about the physical changes that occur when a woman gives birth, but what of men? Nobody ever told me of the profound alteration that happens to a man – as biological a phenomenon as being a mom – when a child is taken into the crook of one’s arm for the first time. Only recently have scientists and psychologists begun to define this Looking Glass moment in a man’s life. I mention this because, as with so much about the brain and body, we give too little credence in this age of self-actualisation to the manacles of our physical selves, our quiet yet eternal undercurrent, the biological beings we are.
With my daughter, 2003
I recently walked along the sea cliffs of an Australian town with my daughter, and we noted the little bronze plaques that marked the places where children had thrown themselves from cliff tops. In reading about teenaged angst, I have found the pat explanations misleading. We’re told that the teen years are ones of physical and psychological evolution, emerging sexuality, stress and anxiety about the future. But that sounds like the whole of life to me, at least as reflected in my experience.
So why do children kill themselves?
I have a theory in relation to children from apparently settled and happy families (who are relatively ‘privileged’, not suffering the state of cultural and physical distress like those Aboriginal girls) whose rage and frustration turns so forcefully inwards that they mutilate themselves, drink and drug to excess, and commit suicide. Could it be that, like the chemical workings of new fathers, we understand too little about the biology of teenagers, or that we have hopelessly distorted the role, value, and power of the young adult?
I am a loving and perfect father, with a well-modulated approach to childrearing. When my children complained, or remained in their rooms too long, or wept, I would open the pages of Antony Beevor’s magisterial book Stalingrad, and read the passage describing how, when peace finally fell after the terrible winter, the reduction of the city to rubble, the defeat of the German forces and starvation, 4 year old children emerged from burned out cellars. I’m joking of course, but the point of the resilience and actual capacity of children is a real one.
Made of iron. A statue of Stalingrad children against the burning city backdrop
Charles Dickens, wielding his pen in the social struggle against the brutal excesses of industrial capitalism, wrote with deep sympathy of children. He marked out 'childhood' as a time that ought be spent in being, and at school, rather than in a factory or mine pit where young limbs were deformed and lungs spoiled. But equally, he regarded childhood perceptions as acute and as worthy as those of adults. Though pre-articulate and relatively powerless, children as beings in Dickens' view were – in a sense separated from physicality, power, and experience – fully formed, with an innate sense of right and wrong.
In 1960 the French historian and medievalist Philippe Ariès published his seminal work Centuries of Childhood, which argued that the appearance of childhood as a distinct developmental unit was a modern phenomenon that coincided with the rise of schooling. And in the Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It, Shakespeare's "whining schoolboy" moves straight into the lover stage, "sighing like a furnace," with no pause or thought given for for an idyllic childhood. To fall in love as a teenager, and to pursue its outcomes (in this terrible instance, suicide of the lovers), was expected. Romeo and Juliet were not perversely young, but were living out a biological imperative.
For two centuries, childhood has been attenuated both in terms of years, and from the upper and middle classes to the lower, and now increasingly from developed countries to developing. The old norm of unschooled children weaving carpets, working Dickensian factories, hawking cigarettes, or diving between traffic to sell cheap plastic trinkets, while still in grotesque numbers, is a diminishing phenomenon. Throughout the world, and backed universally by public policy, it is accepted that children must be in school. Nobody would want that otherwise.
Children of the (Industrial) Revolution. Heartbreaking.
But as childhood is relentlessly stretched, and protected as a right, have we confused a right to ample physical, emotional, and psychological development, and access to equal prospects through universal schooling, and protection by law and custom from exploitation, with a right to an ill-defined, misunderstood, and unnecessarily imposed childhood? Given that, like the foundlings of Stalingrad, children are incredibly adaptable beings, are we maladapting them in a way that leads to frustration, stress and inexplicable anxiety that leads to cutting, alcoholism, and suicide? Are we defying Nature with a surfeit of Nurture?
I mollycoddle and infantilise my daughters with glee. I tell my youngest that she is forever my Runaway Bunny, just like the 1942 story by Margaret Wise I read to her as a child on cold Brooklyn nights (a particularly annoying version below). But it irritates, and teen children naturally and I daresay biologically struggle against this kind of teasing. This is not an argument against love, protection, or kindness, but rather a pitch for the proper return of self-actualisation to young adults, and a recognition of the kind of mature capacity, resilience, and adaptability that is sorely needed in our pandemic times.
One final point is that I think this same line of reasoning is an argument for the extension of universal suffrage to 16 year-olds, an age just two years before they are thrust in to the slipstream of work, or can be enlisted in armies that fight in support of government policy. And why shouldn't students have some say in the very educational policy that might define their lives by force of their votes? It's one way of projecting them from the infantilisation we too lovingly inflict, into a state of being which Dickens would have approved.