Shock and outrage – too much for children, too little for parents
Last Friday I listened to Professor Phil Scraton on BBC Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs, describing a punishment he had witnessed while at school. From the school’s assembly hall all the girls were sent out, then a small boy was brought up onto the stage by two teachers. In front of the assembled boys he was caned, on his backside and on both hands, and was then led away in tears. The shear brutality, towards a mal-nourished son of a lone mother, who had pilfered some biscuits, shocked and outraged the young Phil Scraton. His account of the incident shocked and horrified me.
Earlier in the week, national news had carried an account of an acid attack by a fourteen year-old. The injuries caused were horrific and the news of this outrage will, no doubt, be added to a growing list of violent crime committed by young teenagers and will bring about considerable hand-wringing concerning the state of the nation’s youth. What, we will be asked, what should we do with these terrifying young people who seem so far beyond control and whose lives, like those of their victims, are now blighted.
I once summoned a teenage boy onto a school stage to face punishment in front of four hundred of his school-mates. The boy was hesitant as he mounted the steps onto the stage for, as he had sat with his friends in the body of the hall, he had realised that his father was sitting on the stage, as a guest of honour, I suppose.
The boy was not a bad lad, but his growing confidence as jack the lad, and as the class clown, was putting him at the limits of the school’s patience. As he faced his father, and a number of his teachers, his father told him and the assembled boys just what he thought of his tiresome ways. After a few minutes of this, crestfallen, the boy was sent to re-join his companions. The success of this bit of stage-management lay, of course, in his father’s sharing the school’s concerns and four hundred boys now wondering whether their fathers might also be invited to join an assembly.
Phil Scraton’s fellow pupil did not have a father to help with his growing up, to make any kind of difference in his son’s life, and, most probably, in the life of the one parent who was trying to raise the boy, the boy’s mother.
Whether we are dealing with a pilferer of trifles who might embark on a life of crime, or a putative adult who can terrify, harm and even kill others, how can we direct our shock and outrage to protect them from their own actions, as well as meet our obligations to protect one another?
Whenever, as a teacher, I was able to address children’s problems with the help and support of parents, the matter was usually resolved, quickly and effectively. This is a commonplace, among good teachers and good schools. Parents are the key; their influence over the children they bring into the world is far greater than anyone else’s.
Why then do governments inspect, direct and rate schools and teachers without ever looking into the effectiveness of parents? Why do we never ask, when a new-born infant is to be registered, whether we would ever want a child or grandchild of our own to be adopted by these new parents? Why do we accept the rights, claimed by some people, to inflict themselves as parents when they have abandoned, neglected or harmed older children, or their partners?
New-born babies cannot challenge us as do some older children and young people, but by then the factors in a child’s life that militate against education and socialisation have been at work for some time and reversing them is difficult and expensive. Yes, we should be outraged by the sort of treatment meted out to a child which horrified Professor Scraton, but should we not also be ashamed that we do so little for these vulnerable conscripts and ignore those who bring them into the world?
Adults have choices; if they can’t be bothered to reach out for a condom, why should they keep new-born babies when they have already demonstrated that they are incapable or unwilling to act as responsible parents?
To be practical: in a better world we would oblige potential parents to address the matter of parenthood at least twelve months before the birth of their first child. In the meantime, when a baby is registered, it would seem logical to ask whether either parent has indicated their unsuitability for the role: by harming, neglecting or abandoning a child or partner, by virtue of addiction to alcohol or drugs, by virtue of convictions for serious violence, or by their absence or anonymity.
If either parent is deemed unfit then the child should be given up for adoption. I am told that this could cause considerable trauma for a new mother. However, if she has brought a child into the world to be dependent upon, or at the mercy of someone who is not fit to be a parent, it is surely paramount that the child’s interests be considered before those of the mother.
In other circumstances, when parental shortcomings become apparent later in the life of a disaffected or dangerous child, parents should at the very least be obliged to give an account to a court of their stewardship of a child for whose presence in the world they are responsible. Owners who fail to control dangerous dogs face imprisonment: ask how much more dangerous a disaffected teenager can be.
Professor Phil Scraton is Professor Emeritus at the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast. A criminologist and author, he’s director of the Childhood, Transition and Social Justice Initiative and was lead researcher of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.