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“…expelled from the garden of childhood”

(Neil Postman)

Yesterday had more than a few sad moments, as is often the case when I sit in the Youth Court. But none sadder than hearing a solicitor say – accurately – of her young client; ‘he has never had a childhood’.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that childhood is a period of time that we all go through; something we share as naturally as breathing, something that is common in its nature, if not its complexities, across all cultures. But when we look at what that solicitor said, it’s not that simple. What does it mean to be a child? Is childhood a time of learning and growth, or a time of freedom and play? Or both? In any case, doesn’t everyone have one?

No, of course not. We know that. We all accept that there are children in sweat shops, street children, prostituted children, children in mineral mines. Lots of ink is expended focusing the attention of the world on their plight, and rightly so. But that’s elsewhere. Our society is different. We value the child, surely? Some would say we indulge the child, hence some of the problems. But everywhere we look, there are children, growing up, having fun.

But what about troubled children? ASBO-clad hoodie-wearing tearaways? Those kids that roam our streets creating minor havoc on a daily basis? Is ‘getting into trouble’ a normal childhood experience for them? After all, are children innately good, or are they socialised to be so? And if the socialisation is not carried out properly within the family, should the State intervene?  Should these children be in care? After all, we call them ‘looked after’, so that’s what we do, right?

Since the early nineteenth century philanthropists and politicians have collided in their determination to save children, and are still chasing headlines doing so. According to today’s news, the Department of Work & Pensions is to identify and work with 120,000 problem families to help deal with gang-culture. I’m impressed that the DWP can be so accurate about the current  number of such families, but then, a quick Google of the words problem families will bring up a series of past  headlines by Brown, Blair and Cameron, so maybe they’ve been keeping count.

The Children’s Act 1948 enshrined the right of a Looked After Child to a ‘family life’. It’s a fair bet that the lawmakers of that time  had a fairly conservative view of what elements made up family life, but they intended small communities, family structures, routine and care. What they couldn’t determine was the presence, or absence of, the love, affection, discipline and support of positive parenting.

If, as is generally accepted, society ‘constructs’ the child, then does it also ‘construct’ the delinquent?

Neil Postman was in fact talking about the mediation of adult behaviours through a globalised media for children, resulting in truncated childhoods and premature sexualisation. But yesterday’s child has been expelled from the garden too.

To face a child whose entire life experience has been one of abuse and criminogenic upbringing followed by the upheavals of the care system is to face a child that Dickens would have recognised: one that feels real fear but is afraid to show it. To face a child that has ‘never had a childhood’ is to look across an almost unbridgeable gulf in ‘society’ to someone who feels they are in another world, where our rules are irrelevant. To face that child is to face someone who has been created by others. And that IS a problem.

If we dig Grandma out of her Care Home maybe she can give us a hand…..

What do you suppose is a ‘parenting expert’? I wonder whether I qualify? After all, I’ve so far raised half my kids to adulthood without them being too antisocial. We’ve avoided gangs and drugs, body piercings have been kept to a minimum and they seem to have a vague interest in earning their own living on the right side of the Law.

Job done.

So I wonder what extra pzazz the Government-appointed ‘parenting experts’ announced today  (see link below) will bring to their first class of panic – stricken first time parents and exhausted toddler tamers?  Wow, Samantha darling, taking the register should be fun…

‘OK, Acacia Avenue? Here, Colby Close? Golly, well done, you. Oh dear, no-one from Peckham Towers again? What a shame. Its not as though we don’t make them thoroughly welcome: the box of Baby Einstein DVDs is here for anyone to enjoy, after all”

‘Now, anyone remember this week’s lesson? No-one? Oh come on,  listening skills; don’t you remember? Ah, well, don’t worry, perhaps we should do a little conflict resolution this week instead!’.

Don’t get me wrong. Like many people who deal with youngsters on a regular basis, I am only too well aware that supporting parents of under fives is crucial, and I still remember the panic, fear and exhaustion of those early years chez ApeandAngel, when PND wasn’t just something on a nosy health visitor’s chart but an all-consuming and terrifyingly bleak world that very nearly won. I was lucky.

The days when parenting was a skill that developed with the support and ear-bashing of an older generation have long gone for most of us. The resulting lacuna needed to be filled by more formalised support, and eventually, it was. One of the New Labour ideas that did deserve respect was the creation of Sure Start Centres to give exactly the kind of support that all of a sudden this Government has decided needs to be ‘trialled’ again……having allowed savage cuts to Sure Start Centres across the country as part of its public sector cutbacks.

Sure Start Centres have proved a lifeline for many struggling parents, and an effective support to many children where inadequate parenting has put them ‘at risk’.

According to Children’s Minister Sarah Teather, the Government has a ‘moral and social duty’ to support all parents of under fives. Fantastic. Since the trial lessons are to be available in 2012 it is a fair bet that a large number of children who need support will be lost in the gap between proper funding of Sure Start Centres and the handing out of free vouchers for parentcraft lessons.

But the the aspect of all this that I find most disturbing is the political motivation towards ‘instruction’ in parenthood by a State that believes it has a ‘moral and social duty’ to do so. Last time I looked this wasn’t a totalitarian or authoritarian nation. Should we really support an approach that proposes ‘parenting experts’ teach parents the correct way to ensure their children’s self control and discipline? An approach that intends to shape the way they play, or manage conflict within the home? Now that smacking has been condemned, will the Government do the same for those of us who yell “if you don’t come down this minute it’s going in the bloody bin” at full volume, or who exceed the permitted Pink Plastic Quota on a regular basis?

Most importantly, how will we deal with those who receive the vouchers, but who fail to attend? Detention?

Actually, I’d quite like to apply for the job. Maybe if I do it well enough I’ll stop worrying about the children of the pupil parents who don’t come for lessons. After all, I guess we can always catch up with them  later on in court if things go wrong, can’t we?

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