In Michael Bond’s reflection on the passing of the years read by Sir David Attenborough at the Queen’s 90th birthday service he stated – “My father’s motto was – the most precious gift you can bestow on a child is your time.” A recent survey by mental health charity ‘Mind’ of primary care workers found that work is currently the most stressful area of their lives. Research by the professional body for human resources has revealed that the the number of people saying that they have experienced mental health problems while in employment has climbed from a quarter to a third over the last five years.
The knock on effect of this on family relationships and the well being of children is very costly. Natasha Devon, formerly the UK government’s children’s mental health champion, said last year that in order to identify mental health problems in the early stages, it was necessary to look at the root causes. “Anxiety, for example, is the fastest growing illness in under-21s, and we need to look at what’s happening to young people – the culture and the society they live in, the pressures that are on them.”
Last month attention was being drawn to the increasing evidence of the effects of social media on young people’s mental health but the root cause I want to focus on is the busyness of parents.
Too many parents are overstretched and as a result lose their sense of humour and warmth falling back on tranquilizers or alcohol because they haven’t taken time to look after themselves. We are limited by many things….including our own life experiences and the hurts of our own childhoods but not least the pressures of work. There is only so much pressure we can take so perhaps the most important starting place is to take care of ourselves. Our children need us to look after ourselves and to take time out with them.
In Douglas Coupland’s novel ‘Girlfriend in a coma,’ the central character, after waking up from 17 years in a coma, comments on the lives of her friends: “..….there’s a hardness I’m seeing in modern people.……. Life’s so serious now. I mean nobody even has hobbies these days. Nobody seems to be able to endure being by themselves either but at the same time they’re isolated. People work much more, only to go home and surf the internet and send e-mail rather than visiting each other. The whole world is about work: work work work.”
We are all affected by this same pressure to work. For some the drive to work excessive hours comes from the insecurity engendered by temporary posts and zero hours contracts. However we don’t have to do all that we choose to do and when we choose to do more than we have to do family relationships can suffer. There is good evidence that in western countries at least we are not coping emotionally and spiritually with the diversity, extent and pace of ‘progress.’ The need to keep up has become a tyranny of the soul both in our professions and in our relationships with our children.
However thankfully there are signs of a belated recognition that values, meaning and spirituality are essentials in childrearing and education. The institutions of school and family along with some form of religious affiliation are being recognised as protective against self – destructive behaviour in young people. A better future will mean repudiating the moral priority given to the individual over the community, image over content, the fleeting over the enduring. As we learnt in our Rhythm and Rules series earlier this year the biblical Sabbath leaves no doubt about the need for rest and discipline in our lives.
We must see how precious a gift to those we value most is the time that prioritizing these creates and find a way of creating our own sabbaths.
Noel McCune is a member of the board of Contemporary Christianity.