By Shereener Browne, Co-founder of Orísun Productions
As a woman who grew up in an all-female household, I was unprepared for how emotionally vulnerable boys could be. But how was I to know? The messaging all around me told me that boys are tough - physically and emotionally.
What are little boys made of? Snips, snails and puppy-dogs' tails. That's what little boys are made of. What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice That's what little girls are made of.
The above nursery rhyme dates back to the early 19th century and was, despite its age, still in use during my childhood. From the games we played, to the toys foisted upon us, everything we saw and heard sent a very clear message: boys were strong and girls were to be protected. Although these types of gendered stereotypes are thankfully falling out of favour, their legacy remains. Boys, and men, are still expected not to cry or show any vulnerability. To do so, will open them up to ridicule and bullying.
This kind of stereotyping is damaging. It has no doubt contributed to generations of boys and men “suffering in silence” unable to open up and show their true emotions. It also, perhaps informs the way we parent our boys. This is a particular problem for the Black community. Our children generally are considered more grown up, more culpable and less vulnerable. Known as adultification bias, this form of discrimination is resulting in vulnerable Black children falling through the cracks of our broken system.
This, in part, is what PlayFight is about. It is about how collectively as a society we place a sometimes intolerable burden upon young Black boys, resulting in them growing up too fast and being viewed, not as children, but as a threat. This discrimination is played out in disproportionally high exclusion rates; high levels of stop and search; and the detrimental way in which Black children are treated in the criminal justice system.
So, what can we do? Well, first of all it must be acknowledged how difficult this is. It is hard enough being a parent, but when you also have to battle daily on behalf of your child, it can be at times overwhelming. This is a systemic problem that has its roots in slavery and colonialism. It has existed for centuries and will not go away overnight. You, I, we can do what we can; but ultimately a root and branch change is needed.
But we can and must help our children and having a strong support network of like-minded parents/carers is essential. Having the opportunity to discuss freely these issues is another way to support. This is what we are trying to do with this play. We want to encourage audience members to think about the vulnerable young people they know and how best to support them. That is why we are hosting two post show Q &As, as well as three, free workshops for young people aged 15-18.
One of the key ways in which we can support our young people is by giving them safe spaces to be vulnerable, to play and to develop at their own pace - which will be different for each child. A “safe space” doesn’t necessarily mean a nicely decorated room with ambient music playing in the background. In our play, the safe space is the local chicken shop! A safe space can potentially be anywhere, so long as the child feels valued and listened to.
Supporting our children may at times mean putting aside familiar customs that encourage our children to take responsibility. To grow up and perhaps look after younger siblings. This is unavoidable at times and can also have the benefit of helping the young person to navigate the outside world, particularly when they come to take their place in it as an adult. But alongside such responsibilities we must also encourage play - grown ups included! We must encourage honest and open dialogue; sometimes about difficult topics.
We must also be vigilant. Try to spot the signs of a young person who may be heading towards a crisis. Sleeping in late may not simply be a sign of laziness. A change in appetite may not just be evidence of a fussy eater. I don’t have all the answers. I have made, and continue to make mistakes, but in bringing to you the story of Kai, TJ and Zara - three 15 year olds with hopes and dreams like any other child - we hope to continue this vital conversation about the mental well being of our children. Join the conversation.