Railing against injustice

Jake was naughty at school the other day. It was the kind of naughty which you really hope your child won't be, a kind of senseless destruction. He pulled an iron railing out of a wall. He wasn't feeling miserable or anything like that; he was messing around with his friends and seeing what he could do. Testing his masculine strength, you might say (they were all boys). The railing was loose, and out it came.

He told me about it in a curious way. A lot of his friends were round for tea and he said, "Someone pulled a railing off the dinner hall today. It wasn't me, but the dinner lady said it didn't matter.'' He must have thought that covered all the odds. A somewhat heated discussion between a suspicious me and an amused set of seven-year-olds resulted in Jake in tears while his friend Alan reassured me that 1) he really hadn't meant to do it, and 2) the dinner lady just put the railing in the bin so it really didn't matter. However, they were unable to satisfy me on 3) why had he lied to Mrs Jenkins when she asked who had done it?

When I insisted in my Mallory Towers way that he must own up, a fresh bout of wailing ensued, culminating in Jake roaring out miserably, "But she'll just ask me why I did it! And I don't know why I did it!'' There's been a lot of talk lately about the age at which children assume moral responsibility and understanding. On one side stands the "innocence of childhood'' brigade, epitomised by Blake Morrison's recently published As If book, which seems to claim on one hand that all children are like the James Bulger killers and so we are all (as quondam children) equally culpable, and on the other that children do not really understand the moral weight of what they do and so they (and we?) are innocent.

Then there is the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mob (highly tempting in the dinner hour) which believes that the spawn of the devil are evil through and through and must simply suffer the consequences.

Looking at children on a daily, unsentimental basis does not seem to match either picture. Because of their vulnerability and openness to the world, children can be more lovable than their grown-up versions, but they are not some joyfully amoral blank on which puberty suddenly inscribes ferocious lessons of ethics. They are, as the dog trainer said to me, always learning their place in the pack and what that means. They have to, to survive. It is our business, as adults, to make sure that the pack is not as fiercely predatory or wildly off-kilter as it was for the Bulger killers.

That is a difficult enough task for anyone. I insisted that Jake own up. Mrs Jenkins was very fair about it and explained to him that it was dangerous to mess about with the structure of buildings and wrong to do so when the buildings were not his property. But the railing had been due to be replaced anyhow. He was relieved. I was relieved.

Jake had faced two problems: the irreversibility of his act, and the reactions of adults to it. Not only are these the two problems the Bulger killers faced, they are the two problems any of us face when we go wrong. We can agree that children are not just small adults, fully formed, but they are small human beings in the process of learning to be bigger ones. It's a difficult set of lessons, too. As Mrs Jenkins pointed out, not only do adults always ask you why you did it, but then, whatever answer you give ("He told me to''; "I felt like it''; "It was a dare'') you just get told off afresh ("You shouldn't just do what he tells you to"; "That's not a good feeling"; "That was a silly game'').

I had a couple of children in the car when the Crown's appeal against the two-year sentence passed on the schoolgirls who murdered another young girl came up on the radio. They were very positive. "That's not long enough. " "They ought to go to prison for a hundred years." "What about that poor girl?" It may be a fledgling morality, but it is feeling its wings.

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