I’ve just got back from my first afternoon visiting a Teens and Toddlers project at a nursery. Much as I’m ashamed to admit it I did have preconceptions about what the teenagers would be like. I’d assumed they’d be surly and uncommunicative, and that it would be difficult to engage with them, especially given that the teens on our programme are chosen precisely because they’re deemed to be more ‘at-risk’ (of dropping out of school, having children young etc.) than their peers.
But I’m delighted to say my experience was a total eye-opener and my preconceptions have been shelved. The six boys on the project I visited are all thirteen years old, and whilst they are typical teenagers who don’t always listen, aren’t all that keen on looking you in the eye and occasionally act up, on the whole they’re really lovely kids.
Classroom sessions aside, the real joy for me was seeing the way the boys interacted with their ‘toddlers’ in the nursery. It was a gloriously sunny afternoon which meant the toddlers were racing around outside in the play area. One of the boys had arrived at the nursery fuming about having had a personal possession stolen at school, and the facilitators were initially reticent about allowing him into the nursery to see his toddler, lest he carry his anger through to their session. Once he was out there, however, he was totally unselfconscious and behaved impeccably with his toddler. He even had a number of toddlers gathering around him to play because he was so much fun to be with.
Another boy, who had in the earlier classroom session refused to look any of us in the eye and acted bored, came alive with his toddler and spent ages lying on the ground play-fighting with them. I saw each of the six interacting with their toddlers in such a heart-warming way that it made me see every one of them in an entirely new light. When we returned to the classroom after the session with the toddlers they were alive with enthusiasm and keen to talk about the progress they had made with their toddlers.
At one point in the classroom we discussed what age would be the right age to have children. All the boys unanimously agreed that older than twenty five was ‘past it’ as far as they were concerned, which made me – a childless woman of thirty one with no immediate plans to have children – laugh. It’s been so long since I was their age I’d forgotten how old twenty five seems; like a lifetime away, though of course it’s really not.
Watching the boys – and the toddlers, come to that – today, it really wasn’t obvious that they have turbulent home lives. But I was reliably informed by the facilitator that some of them have an awful lot on their plates given their age. It’s hard enough being a teenager without having a host of problems to deal with in your personal life.
I’ve come away feeling more certain than ever that the work my charity’s doing with vulnerable children and disadvantaged teenagers is vital for the future of this country’s young people. No young person is inherently a ‘bad kid,’ it’s just that some of them need extra help to navigate their way through turbulent periods in their lives and stay on the right track. Shouldn’t every young person in that situation have the right to such help?
Meeting the boys today made me think of the boys I taught in Tanzania in 2007, some of whom were about the same age then as these boys are now. I wonder what became of them and where they are now.