Not following in their parentsʹ footsteps!
Generational conflicts are nothing new. Everyone has experienced them with parents, relatives or teachers. Differences of opinion are normal between people of different ages. But if these differences become too many and moments of mutual understanding rarer and rarer, then family life, as everyone can imagine, becomes very difficult.
In Egypt, everyone is well acquainted with arguments between parents and children. On the street, in supermarkets, in the apartment next door – you can hear them shouting at each other everywhere, calling each other names. An Egyptian family whose members do not raise their voices daily and live in harmony has become a rarity.
Think of three years that match the following three generations: grandparents, parents and adolescents. As examples, I have picked 1957, 1987 and 2017. One may now compare them under thousands of different aspects, but let us focus on the most important keyword: media. In 1957, local newspapers and radio shows were the common sources of news. Not everyone could afford a black-and-white television. In 1987, colour television sets became fashionable, but not yet personal computers. The year 2017 knows a special invention that none of the other two years had – the Internet. With the introduction of the world wide web in 1991, an important medium emerged that would soon turn everything upside down.
Welcome to the era of globalisation
With the Internet, the whole world is at our feet, or rather on our screens. The 'whole world' meant nothing more to our Egyptian grandparents and parents than their home town. My generation learns at least one foreign language at school (which, nowadays, may even be an international school), prefers to watch American movies on TV, listens to international music, likes brands, wants the newest Apple iPhone for their birthday, dreams of studying abroad, is curious about things like Communism, atheism and homosexuality.
At some point in the past, it has simply become too much for our poor parents. After all, when they were young, there was nothing more modern and hip than McDonalds, jeans and Michael Jackson. And as the old saying goes: "You canʹt teach an old dog new tricks". The older generation often despairs of the fast pace and material nature of the 21st century, or feels alienated by it. Accordingly, they try to bring up their children based on their own, old lifestyle, which they perceive as the right one.
To their great disappointment, however, children refuse to live in another time than their own. This means that a conflict between parents and children emerges from the earliest years on, which, by the time adolescence comes around, has become so serious that it often renders the two generations hopelessly "incompatible".
Egyptian culture is not a Hollywood movie!
Egyptians love television. Whether American movies or Turkish TV shows, television strongly influences society and young people in particular. Imagine two 18-year-old Egyptians, a male and a female, watching TV: he sees youths his age drinking alcohol, chatting up girls, acting against the wishes of their parents, moving out at the age of 18, changing their faith or exploring the world on their own; she observes girls being free to wear shorts and intimate with boyfriends in public, spending holidays alone with friends abroad, working alongside university – and making their own decisions about the future. Then both turn off the TV and are confronted with the reality of Egyptian society.Young people in Egypt are rebelling not only against their parents (which is normal at a certain age), but against centuries-old societal norms. This leads parents to complain and draw comparisons with their own adolescence, usually coming to the conclusion that they "were never so difficult". But the question is: if a person behaves in a certain way, because s/he doesnʹt know any better, is it really a matter of will?
No more blind obedience
In Eastern cultures, including Egypt, great importance is assigned to childrenʹs behaviour towards their parents, mainly for religious reasons. However, among Egyptians, there is widespread misinterpretation of good behaviour as, in a nutshell, obedience – the blind kind.
"You donʹt yet know whatʹs good for you. You are too young to know that. You therefore have to do as I say", are the words of typical Egyptian parents. But they forget a few important facts: todayʹs young generation was born with their eyes open. We already know so much more of the world than what our parents knew at that age. Maybe the first few years of our childhood were marked by absolute innocence and naivety, but not more.
Whether that is good or bad is not the question here. What is important is that, at the age of about 16, what we need is not so much knowledge, but experience. But our good old parents would like us to stay at home and spend all time studying for school! Where is the experience supposed to come from? It is for this reason that most Egyptian school leavers, and even many undergraduates, feel completely clueless and lost: they have not learned anything practical about the "outside world", neither at home nor at school.
Instead of making us stay at home and learn daily for our Thanaweya Amma (secondary school exam), parents should encourage their children to explore the world. They should allow them to make mistakes and stop their constant criticism of us. "Our parents only love us if we do the right thing", "I am often scared of my parents" – this is how many Egyptian teenagers feel, as parents tend to respond to mistakes with verbal or physical aggression.Of course, all parents love their children, even if they make mistakes. But what they forget is that love, including the love of parents, must be shown. If not, children distance themselves from their parents and seek advice and support from other adults, such as teachers. But then again parents complain that their children wonʹt tell them anything anymore, and instead of solving the problem through calm dialogue, they become suspicious, and thus even more aggressive – and the vicious circle continues.
Smartphones are too valuable to be simply put down!
Parents (not only in Egypt) often say that my generation is addicted to their smartphones and all that. But instead of endlessly repeating the same sentence over and over again – "Can you put that piece of junk down now?!" – schools and associations should offer programmes that teach adolescents how to make the most out of their online time, apart from posting selfies and following celebrities. The Internet does not only shape our everyday life, but also history and politics. Just look at the Arab Spring. The smartphone is too valuable to be simply "put down"!
Instead of prohibiting young people from going on excursions or abroad unaccompanied, they should be brought up in a way that helps them grow into trustworthy human beings.
Another frequent complaint against us is "ungratefulness". Here, parents could task older children with looking after their younger sibling(s) or after a pet, so s/he understands how difficult it is to bear responsibility for another being. If "greed", in the shape of constant requests for new unnecessary gadgets, clothes or simply money, becomes too strong, there is a simple solution: get your children a summer job that teaches them the value of money.
The idea that only doctors and engineers can be successful must finally disappear in Egyptian society. The pressure that is put on secondary school students to get accepted by the faculties of medicine or engineering really is inhumane. A good thing about the 21st century is that everyone can be successful with enough hard work and creativity.
Another matter where attitudes need to change among adults is sex. Our grandparents never spoke to our parents about this, and our parents, therefore, want to remain silent about it as well until the weeding night. But that simply doesnʹt work for us anymore, because this topic is everywhere: We encounter it in the media, in our circle of friends, on the streets in the shape of sexual harassment and rape. Every young person needs to understand their rights and responsibilities when it comes to sexuality, and it is the responsibility of both parents and schools to teach her/him that.
There are dozens of examples demonstrating alternative parenting methods. And if I had to summarise them all in one sentence, I consider the following saying from the Greek poet Plato to be more than suitable: "Do not force your children to follow in your footsteps, for they were destined for a time other than yours."
And what can we do?
The most important thing that children can offer their parents, in my opinion, is empathy. If we put ourselves in the shoes of our parents from time to time, we will come to understand them much better. I too would worry if my daughter didnʹt come home by midnight and didnʹt answer her phone. I would feel annoyed too if my son had lost his iPhone for a second time. And, of course, it would be extremely hard for me to see my children move out. It is by no means easy to be an adult, nor a parent. And besides, the 21st century can really make your head spin – I think we are all agreed on that.
© Goethe-Institut Cairo/Perpectives 2018
Translated from the Arabic by Jana Duman
Engy Ashraf, 20 years old, born in Alexandria, is a former student of the German School of the Sisters of Mercy of St. Borromeo. After her graduation in 2015, Engy moved to Cairo, where she spent one semester studying Russian and French at the Alsun Faculty for Linguistics and Translation. In 2016, she transferred to the University of Alexandria to study medicine, where she is about to complete her third semester.