The problem with freedom

The Institute of Public Policy Research has raised some interesting questions about the socialisation of children in its recent report, Freedom's Orphans. It has also re-raised the question about why adults in the UK are "scared of the kids".

From its Europe-wide research, for example, the IPPR found that, whereas two thirds of adults in Germany would intervene if they saw a group of young people vandalising a bus shelter, in the UK only a third would do so.

The institute gave a number of reasons why British adults were less prepared to intervene than their European counterparts, including economic changes, and changes to the structure of the family and the community.

What it did not mention, however, was the way the state and professionals have, over the last decade or so, come to colonise the informal relationships between adults and children.

The privatisation of childhood that has led to a situation where parents are less inclined to support teachers, let alone other adults on the street, in disciplining their children, certainly hasn't helped. But neither has the relentless politicisation of antisocial behaviour, and the myriad state-funded initiatives, wardens, phone lines and so on that have been set up to get professionals and the police to do the job that local adults previously did.

Even worse than this, perhaps, is the way that adult-child relationships have been confused to the extent that, for many people, it is no longer clear whether you should help a child when they are distressed, or even speak to them in public.

In the end, one of the main solutions offered by the institute to the problem of adults being scared of kids, and of the socialisation of young people, is simply to call for more state regulation and supervision of young people in the form of compulsory structured youth work.

As the title Freedom's Orphans suggests, freedom is one thing this institute has little time for. The question of how to get adults back onto the streets engaging with young people is simply ignored, while the freedom and space that young people need to help them grow up is seen as part of the problem.

That the IPPR can simply ignore the importance of freedom and of unregulated informal relationships in creating genuine communities indicates the lack of trust they have in people. For many children today, the result is that the only adults who talk to them outside the home are those who are paid to do so.

Stuart Waiton is a director of Generation Youth Issues

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