Badly drawn boys

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
Following the focus of Labour's election campaign on the scare of youth crime, Stuart Waiton questions the myth of the anti-social yob

TANDING outside Christie's in Airdrie, I watched two 10-year-old skinheads run across the road. Splashing through a puddle in their white trainers and tracksuits, they jumped into the bakers. In the queue, I looked on as the two ned-like kids stared up at an old woman and asked: "Can I have a donut please, gran?"

Within 30 seconds, the two wee scallies of outside had turned into a couple of bright-eyed children wanting a sticky bun. I could feel everyone in the baker's sigh with relief and smile.

As I stood in the shop laughing at myself and the transformation I had just seen in these two children, I wondered what it was that adults see when they look at young people. We see the children, but I think we also see the adults they are going to become.

In the past, the tough working-class kids who hung around estates would have been seen perhaps as a future soldier or perhaps a future miner or even just a family man - a head of the household. Today, especially when looking at boisterous working-class boys, what many people see is not mischief but "anti-social behaviour".

Aggression rather than being seen as a strength to harness becomes a cause for concern, a danger. Perhaps in our worst moments we no longer see two 10-year-old boys but see the criminals of the future. Exaggerated concern about crime and anti-social behaviour clearly influences this perception, but so too does the increasingly deterministic way that children are seen today.

Brought up in a bad home. You will be an anti-social child and a criminal adult. Abused in the home. You too will become an abuser of the future.

Unemployed parent. Witness the underclass of tomorrow. These examples are all crude, but examine almost any research looking at anti-social behaviour, or indeed the government policies being developed on the back of this research, and the Pavlovian image of the children and young people under scrutiny is stark. In their hunt for the criminal gene or the "psychosocial risk factor" that can explain all, researchers have taken this sheep-like perception of people to its logical conclusion. The highly respected D P Farrington goes so far as to see paediatricians as the answer.

Stop working-class women smoking or drinking and get them to eat properly while pregnant, and hey presto you have a future without crime. This may be an extreme, but it is this approach developed largely by child psychiatrists and social psychologists which informs the practice of crime prevention that is having an impact on schools and youth centres. Even nursery places are discussed in today's policy documents as a form of crime prevention, with "risk factors" of future criminality pinned on to unsuspecting three-year-olds.

Part of the problem may be that the future is less clear, creating a greater sense of insecurity among us all. The roles that men play today are also more confused. Past images of adults were related to the role that they would play in society, the energy and aggression of young children being seen as a possible source of dynamism and resilience within this context. Today this same energy and aggression is often seen and felt by us as a threat both in the present and the future.

For all those crime prevention experts, researchers and policy-makers who want to see the future of a child, may I suggest a fortune-teller. For the rest of us, it is sometimes worth being reminded by a gran buying two boys a sticky bun that a 10-year-old boy is simply a 10-year-old boy.

Stuart Waiton is a director of www.

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