The tragic death of Isobel Reilly sparked anguished debate about liberal parenting but shouldn’t we have sympathy for parents trying to cope with today’s confident young teens?
How moving it was to see the friends of 15-year-old Isobel Reilly hold a vigil for her in west London, releasing balloons on the green in her memory.
Isobel, a student at Chiswick Community School, suffered a cardiac arrest and died at her friend’s house party at the home of academic Brian Dodgeon and his partner, charity manager Angela Hadjipateras, in the early hours of 23 April. She and others at the party are understood to have taken drugs, thought to include ecstasy, ketamine, LSD and amphetamines.
Dodgeon and Hadjipateras had left the house, allowing their daughter Rebecca to have the party. Dodgeon, 60, has since been suspended from his job, and arrested on suspicion of possessing drugs and child abandonment.
At which point the impulse may be to feel censure towards the adults. How could they leave these children unsupervised? How could any of the parents let their children stay out so late? In my experience, in a situation that is tragic enough, this kind of judgment would be cruel and unfair.
I never met Isobel Reilly, but – as a one-time parent of a young teenager in the west London area – I do feel I have some level of insight. Not to mention the deepest sympathy for any of the parents and children involved.
It’s possible that Isobel, at 15, was in some way caught up by a toxic youth movement that, in my observation, has been a huge influence, in recent years, in better-off parts of Britain.
This is not “Broken Britain”. Not this time. This is the young, feral middle class – moneyed to varying extents, super-connected by the internet, egged on by each other to self-destructive behaviour. And for many parents, these teenagers are increasingly impossible to protect and control.
The party line is: “Teenagers have always been the same.” I’m not so sure that’s true any more. Disposable income, the internet and mobile phones have changed everything. These kids are well-organised, articulate and extremely powerful. What is more, they are all too aware of this power.
From an early age, they develop a kind of functioning semi-independence, pursuing lifestyles that one used to have to leave the parental home (even earn a salary) to achieve.
This is a crucial difference. In the past, a moody 16-year-old might think: “I can’t wait to get my own place/go to university. My parents cramp my style.” These days this doesn’t seem to be an issue. They seem to be completely unselfconscious about running quite spectacular social lives from the parental home.
It’s all about the perks of adulthood without the responsibilities, and the perks are numerous. Facilitated by the internet, they have hundreds of “friends”. A well-connected 14- or 15-year-old in London can go to a party of a friend (or friend of a friend) every single night of the week – with or without parental permission. Often without.
This is not to say that there is always something appalling going on, or that these young people are in any way “evil” or “bad”. In particular, the notion that the girls are acting like “sluts” has long been overplayed – their silly posing on networking sites just makes it seem that way. Likewise, the vast majority of teenagers I’ve come across – even if they do plod off down the wrong road for a while – are genuinely lovely at heart.
However, some of them really do push their luck, and way beyond the usual teenage “it’s not fair” routines. At the extreme end, they rule their families, terrorising parents into giving them unprecedented freedoms and privileges, such as, say, unsupervised all-night parties. It goes something like this. Child to parent: “But you must leave, please, you’ll spoil it otherwise, everyone else’s parents allow it. Just go!” (Repeat ad nauseam.)
And who are we to judge the parents who allow these excessive privileges? The liberal method of dealing with teenagers is nothing new, and in many ways admirable. Tactics such as letting them run off steam, keeping them close, imposing a state of “organised rebellion” work sometimes. The problem is that there may be many more young people demanding ever more boundaries to be pushed back.
Moreover, unless this out-of-touch old crock of a “former rock chick” is mistaken, these young people are getting younger. Slurping a bit of your mum’s Martini Rosso or puffing on a Silk Cut are one thing, but I’d have thought that (if you really must, and it’s probably best not to), your late teens and early-to-mid 20s are the key periods for experimentation with illegal substances. Now what is it – 13, 14, 15? What were the drugs at that party – ecstasy, ketamine, LSD, amphetamines?
This is a hardcore, terrifying world away from my experiences as a young teenager, and, I might add, as a parent of a young teenager (my daughter is now 19). The young people I knew, and told off and moaned about, were never in this deep. Have things moved on so much? This is beyond being a moral issue. It is repulsive to think of children in their early or mid-teens trying to cope physically, mentally, or emotionally, with even one of these substances, never mind all at once.
For those out there who are muttering, “What about the parents?” – yeah, what about the parents? How about a little sympathy for once? Trying to protect the temporarily feral can be a full-time (miserable, exhausting) occupation, a losing game for parents, who probably have careers and other children.
They’re distracted, knackered, worried sick, but still doing their best. They may even feel it best “not to sweat the small stuff”. What worries me now is that if their youngsters are going through a patch of being very impressionable, the “small stuff” may not be that small any more.
For some parents, there may be feelings of hypocrisy – those who came of age in the cocaine-snorting 80s, or acid house 90s, may be disinclined to moralise. Even if they aren’t disinclined, their children can say: “You did it.”
Not necessarily, little brat, it depends on your age. As previously stated, time was when people waited to leave home, before ahem, “expressing themselves”. Thus, they were older (generally university-aged), even if no wiser.
We hear enough about the “Asbo yobs” – why aren’t this other lot more talked about? That’s easy. The middle classes aren’t the type to go all confessional and Jeremy Kyle about it. They’re the type to toil on, and close ranks. Just look at how author Julie Myerson was savaged when she went public about her struggles with her son. That situation was complicated by the book she wrote, which was called intrusive, but it seemed to me that Myerson’s chief crime was to shatter the conspiracy of silence.
The norm is a class-related, self-imposed gagging order. This mentality is one of, “My child seems out of control. I’m scared that they are unsafe. I have to remember that this is just a phase.” And the great news is that it is just a phase. A different phase to what it used to be, but still a phase. Most of them will grow out of it.
However, there is always the spectre of the “fall guy”. The impressionable “show off” child who pushes it too far and cops it, fails exams, develops an addiction, falls pregnant, or even dies. The horrible events at that party in west London prove that the “fall guy” isn’t some bogeyman dreamed up by tedious, stuffy parents.
The desperately sad thing about Isobel Reilly is that, for all her silly posing on her social networking sites, about loving her “wild lifestyle”, she was just a kid. Young people like her tend to grow out of it, usually within a few short years. But she will never get the chance.
Similarly, the parents of many of the teenagers at the party were probably only behaving in a way that is routine for parents in their situation – being liberal and tough, in equal measure, waiting for “the phase” to pass, doing their best.
It’s possible that what happened could have happened to literally thousands of other young people on any given weekend. All I know is that, as I watched Isobel Reilly’s heartbroken friends release those balloons, I immediately reacted the way I imagine a lot of other parents did: there but for the grace of God.