Monday, 17 November 2008

We Hate Children.

This is a topic that I have posted on before, but it has been highlighted today by a report showing how much we hate our children. Apparently more than half the UK population think that children behave like animals; more than a third believe that the streets were ‘infested’ with children and 43% thought that adults needed to be protected from children. The report coincided with an advert to raise awareness of our attitudes to children, using phrases from websites that describe children as ‘vermin’, ‘animals’, as walking in ‘packs’. And, as if to illustrate the point, a visit to the comments on the article highlighting this news on the BBC’s website, includes an invective of hate towards children. A couple of examples include:

‘Curfew for school aged kids NOW.’

‘Do some children behave like animals? No - animals tend to behave better. I have never seenan animal that would smash your car for no reason, make false accusations backed up by lies and manipulation. Yes children are more 'dangerous' than before because (a) their behaviour is worse (b) they are protected by an absurd system of 'human rights'. The Barnados video was accurate except for one fact - the hoodlums roaming the streets were about 20 years too old.
Even those comments which try to take a more moderate perspective comment that it is not ‘all’ children that behave like this, or that if we could just discipline our children more, then ‘bad’ children would not exist.

Our hatred of children is enacted everyday, not only in comments to websites, but in our attitudes to children. I mean, what is the problem with children playing on the streets or even hanging round street corners. As a society, we have become so intolerant to children that if we seem them in groups we condemn them, regardless of what they are doing. Of course, we should condemn vandalism, bullying and anti-social behaviour, but being visible is not a crime. Even in the [probably mythical] Victorian period, children should be seen and not heard. Yet, even to be seen is now a crime. We complain if our children spend too much time in front of the TV or computer, but chase them outside and we condemn them as lazy, useless, and a nuisance. Time and again, we hear complaints of children ‘hanging around’, of ‘being on buses’ [so what?], of blocking doorways- only very occasionally do such complaints actually involve actual anti-social behaviour [and are young people not part of society- do they not get a say in what is anti-social?]. We remove spaces for children to play and hang around; we cut funding for initiatives to provide young people with place to go; we even are increasingly intolerant of children in productive roles, prohibiting them from working, and allowing their exploitation through the refusal of a minimum wage for under 18s and a lower minimum wage for under 21s.

We criminalise behaviour that in past years would have just been perceived as ‘childish’. Despite a belief that children go unpunished in the twenty-first century, studies suggest that children are more likely to receive a criminal record now than ever before and that a much broader range of behaviours are now dealt with by youth panels and the court than ever before. This is not because children have got worse, but because we are more inclined to use the state as a form of discipline for the young.

We also increasingly expect all parents, including single parents and both partners in a couple, to work, a policy actively pursued by the Labour government through tax benefits and restrictive benefit allowances, but provide nothing for children. We saw no corresponding increase in child-care facilities to provide for the children left unsupervised by such a policy. We saw no extension in school hours, or even after-school activities to compensate for absent parents. The state chose to turn a blind-eye to the needs of the next generation. This, of course, made parents lives more difficult, but how much more did it reflect the complete disregard we have for children that they didn’t even feature in our thinking on an issue that so directly impacted on their lives.

The fact is that concern over the behaviour of children is not new. Read any newspaper for the last three hundred years and you will find an article bemoaning the youths hanging around street corners, pick-pocketing and robbing stores. Concern over knife crime is not novel; the anti-duelling legislation of the eighteenth-century arose out of a belief that groups of young men were swarming the streets challenging honest citizens, left, right and centre, to duels, which inevitably ended in death or severe injury.

Young people are scary because they are a social group whose rights we are reluctant to recognize. They are human beings with personalities, attitudes, opinions and needs. Just like misogyny arises out of a fear of women exercising their human rights; hatred of children arises from our wish to subordinate children. Why we have a need to subordinate youth is less clear. Is it from a fear of the new: new ideas, new attitudes, new fashions? If so, we shouldn’t be too concerned. Most children are actually surprisingly conservative in their values; after all, they take their values from their parents [it takes a bit of life experience to open your mind to new ways of thinking- which of course some children have]. Is it from a need to repeat the hatred that was enacted on us in our childhood; a reactive belief that we are right and to produce people like us we need to behave as our parents did? If so, perhaps it’s time for change- hating children is hardly a healthy way to live.

Recognition of children’s rights is a step forward for humanity, because children are us; they are our future and they are a product of our imput into them. If we want to have our human rights recognized (and we do), then we need to recognise theirs. If they behave badly, chances are it is because we taught them to behave badly. If they reject us, it is because we rejected them. If we want them to have good values and good behaviour, then it is on us to teach them. If you have a problem with young people, then it is probably your problem.