When Kids Go Mad For A Bookie


Why did the kids flocking for Tom Waterhouse’s signature become a tipping point for concerns about gambling? Have we just had enough of gambling becoming the national sport of choice, or is there something about seeing kids go mad for a bookie that makes our collective skin crawl?

The other day, after a relatively short conversation about how I manage to pay all the bills, finding a job you like doing when you grow up and how the two might one day be related, my kid suggested a possible life path for herself: I think I might marry a rich man. Happiness, feminism and self-responsibility aside, I could see where she was coming from. The odds aren’t stacking up from her vantage point and she’s looking for a safer bet.

We’ve gotten so het up about gambling after watching kids flock to get Tom Waterhouse’s autograph because it’s only when we see our own behaviour mimicked by littler people that we get the true extent of our own sorriness. When my daughter indulges in a momentary fantasy of solving her money worries by marrying some, I can see all my own tragic attempts to get my act together financially coming home to roost.

But some of what’s grabbed our attention is even more sinister than a new generation of addictive gamblers. Admittedly, problem gambling is a serious issue for kids, and starting to gamble when you’re young is not a good sign for your future ability to resist compulsive punting.  But there’s more than a concern about gambling at play here. When we look at the kids lining up in admiration in front of this well-suited baby millionaire, I think we may be gutted about what Waterhouse is telling us about the fundamental flaws of hero worship.

Do you have an autograph from when you were a kid? Whose name did you want scrawled on a piece of paper to cherish for evermore? I don’t think I have one, but I do remember plotting to grab a pen dropped by the artist Louise Bourgeois while she was giving a lecture I saw in the 80s, and planning keep it as an amulet forever.

The people we idolise when we’re young tell us a lot about our experience of being in the world. Louise Bourgeois was a great artist, working well into her 90s, a feminist who was interested in psychoanalysis. There were a few ticks there for me to aspire to. But she was also haunted by her past, working at it, over it and under it for years, never reaching any kind of resolution. Looking back, I think my great interest in her betrayed part of my belief that I too would never be able to leave the past behind. When I moved more toward moving on, she lost some of her otherworldly shine.

So it’s no wonder the kid frenzy for Tom Waterhouse drives some grown ups crazy. He’s a seductive, clean-cut rich kid who makes it all look so easy. And he hasn’t just made it all look so easy, he’s played a part in making online betting more accessible for children than ever before. As an aspirational role model, he’s a cross between the Pied Piper, the Artful Dodger and the Wolf in Snow White. If kids are lining up for his autograph, then badness is afoot.

Waterhouse is the new face of the same old “Tatts me outta here” fairytale. Like any classic fairytale, the trickster has a pleasant face and good manners. He offers some great magic that promises to erase your life’s troubles. But there’s the key — you’ve got some serious troubles. It’s these troubles that the tiny autograph hunters are showing us that we don’t want to see. That’s why we’re so much more keen to shut him down now than ever before.

If kids are following the tune of a man whose claim to fame is inherited wealth and a business that makes money largely from the misery of people who are disenfranchised, then there are not so many interpretations available here. Either they see gambling as central to their lives, or making money from the pain and silliness of people has been glorified. Or both.

It’s hard to watch kids enticed by a man who promises them an escape, because it’s hard to bear that these kids are wanting one. That what they see on offer looks so lacklustre that they aspire to be magically transported to a life lived by approximately as many of them as will become millionaires through gambling.

Our job, if we choose to accept it, is not just to turn off the betting ads that pass for sporting events, but also to wonder about what kids see when they look at us. Compulsive or addictive behaviour is supported both socially and psychologically and we have the ability to work both of those levers.  Because it’s what they see that has made them want to follow a man whose life work is at best harmless and at worst parasitic. Can we face what kids are telling us about ourselves?

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.

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