It is staggering to think how many of the decisions we take are influenced by events early in our lives. I’m not thinking of those biological, pre-birth influences such as diet, activity levels and audio-stimulus. I’m rather thinking of the post-toddler childhood and early school years – a phase rich in external influences and events which captivate, excite, motivate, engage, enthuse – or the reverse.
It’s not difficult to see where those influences come from. We tend to engage more readily with other people who are having fun and enjoying life, so we subconsciously respond to their cues on what is fun and enjoyable, further reinforcing and perpetuating the messages. Young children are surrounded by others of a similar age, and it doesn’t take long for a new playground “craze”, for example, to sweep through schools as children convince each other how fun and exciting it is. The young influencers spread the word quickly as friends redefine what is fun or “cool” to do in the playground – until it is replaced by a new definition from a different source. And there are plenty of potential sources, from role-model super-heroes (real or imaginary) to cleverly-marketed ideas from the professionals.
It is noticeable how narrow the range of role-models is for these young children. The “real” variety tend to be high-profile celebrities (always in the news, and frequently a topic of conversation for parents); sportsmen (footballers are a common favourite); popstars or dancers; or sometimes children’s television presenters.
An obvious attraction of these role-models for young people is that it’s easy to see what they actually “do” – they appear on the television or in shiny magazines; they play football; they sing or dance; they present funny or interesting things on the television. Most of these things are easily identifiable to even young children. Money is unlikely to be a motivator at this early age; the ease with which they can be identified, and the sense of fun is more likely to be the motivator.
There are pockets of special cases – the vet who cures a sick family pet; the kind baker who always pulls a coin from inside a child’s ear; the hairdresser who always gives a lolly after a haircut – people who somehow make a mark on a child for some reason, and for a while they unwittingly guide a child in the direction of that particular profession. These special cases are generally fewer and further apart than the earlier high-profile examples, and they don’t create as lasting an effect.
How many parents talk to their young children about their own profession; about what they do at work every day? Is it any wonder that children grow up wanting to be footballers, pop-stars or celebrities rather than accountants, solicitors, scientists or consultants? Isn’t it time we started to excite our own children about what we do? Not as encouragement to do the same, but just so that they understand the range of choices open to them. London 2012 has created a new group of Olympians who will undoubtedly inspire and encourage many to start a new sport. There are occasionally huge news stories which create an interest in a new field and inspire a generation – Man landing on the Moon; Curiosity landing on Mars; the development of Concorde; invention of wireless telegraphy. But we could do so much more to inspire the youth of today by looking around us now and engaging with them, rather than waiting for world events to do it for us.
The examples I used above were natural for me to choose – based on science and technology, they were early influences in my life. The Vietnam War; The Arab-Israeli Conflict; The Suez Crisis could just as easily have inspired me but I had already made subconscious decisions earlier in my life, and those major world events didn’t interest me.
For me, it could have all been so different (not necessarily better or worse, but different) had I been exposed to different influences. I might still have made the same life choices in the end, but I might have done that whilst being better informed. And being better informed is probably a good thing.