Mind the Generation Gap

On a recent family trip to London, I heard the famous ‘Mind the Gap’ announcement quite frequently as we travelled on the London Underground.

As I heard the announcement and looked at the actual distance between the edge of the platform and the train, it didn’t strike me as being worthy of such a regular announcement. However, I then remembered what it felt like to travel around London as a child, how massive the gap looked between the stable platform and the noisy onrushing train, and how I felt equally warned and reassured by the now famous Underground phrase.

Over the last year or so, I feel that ‘Mind the Gap’ has taken on a different meaning entirely. The need for socially distancing and maintaining ‘bubbles’ has led to me using this phrase in a different context. The gap (separation) between people has needed to be kept for reasons of protection from the Covid-19 virus. Unfortunately, though, long periods of social distancing and self-isolation have meant for many of the children and young people we work with that they have been unable to see school peers, friends and family members. This has clearly caused ‘gaps’ in educational learning as well as struggles with mental, social and emotional health. As we have worked with children and young people this year, a repeated highlight for lots of them has been their joy at being able to reconnect with wider family, but particularly older and younger cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents.

This has reminded me of how important intergenerational relationships are for children and young people’s development. Growing up in Somerset, I was a slightly awkward looking and clumsy adolescent in the need of some encouragement and guidance. In our church cricket team, our captain was a lovely Yorkshireman called Les. As I was learning to play cricket, he soon noticed that I had no real sporting skill, but that I made up for this somewhat, with huge amounts of enthusiasm. Les helped me to improve my cricket game. He taught me how to play golf, and we would regularly watch County cricket games together on a Sunday afternoon. Les was a quiet but kind man. He was also one of those people who I can only ever remember as being old. There must have been at least 40-50 years age difference between the two of us. I think there must be children and teenagers I work with now who view me in the same way: “Oh yeah, Pete’s always been old”. This age difference never mattered to me though. I recognised that Les was fun to spend time with and we both loved golf and cricket. I respected him and realised that I could learn lots from him. Les never said that much but he was honest and encouraging. His steady presence in my life helped me to get better at sport, and develop my confidence in both sport and life in general. I remember shortly before my 40th birthday, talking to a good friend and sharing a concern I had, “What if as I get older, I can’t relate to kids anymore because I stop being cool?” My friend looked at me, smiled and said “Pete, I think you’ll be absolutely fine…. mainly because you were never cool in the first place”. He was absolutely right but it made me think again of Les’ impact on my life. Les was never ‘cool’ in the conventional meaning of the word. He was an old man who wore a flat cap in the winter and would use a hanky in the summer to cover his head, when the sun was out. Les always had a tin of boiled sweets in his coat pocket and his golf clubs looked older than him. None of this mattered though. Les was cool to me, because he was prepared to spend time with me, encourage me and share his boiled sweets in that tin!

I firmly believe that having people of different ages in our lives is really healthy for our development as human beings, no matter how old we are. The ability to be able to have shared experiences with people of different ages and experiences can be really beneficial. This is particularly the case with children and young people. Being able to learn from people older than them is really healthy. For the most part, the kids I work with have no concern about my age. They know that I am there to help them, listen to them and be there for them. My challenge to us all, as a new school year has started, is: “How can we encourage children and young people in our local communities?” Most of them won’t mind the generational gap; they will be more interested in and encouraged by people who are willing to listen to them and help them, no matter what age they are.

Pete Barks
Primary Personal Development Lead, Phase Trust