Blame the politicians

27th October 2006 at 01:00
Stop labelling children as villains before they have had a chance to grow up, says Stuart Waiton

ony Blair's recent suggestion that we should intervene in dysfunctional families, to prevent child behavioural problems developing, even before a child is born, has raised concerns about the ethics of such a move.

Like the sci-fi film Minority Report, where police arrest people on the basis of crimes they have yet to commit, this approach appears to label children as the villains of the future before they have had a chance to take their first breath.

In letters pages in various newspapers, it has rightly been pointed out that this predictive approach is highly problematic, not least because the vast majority of children who have all the "high risk indicators" that suggest they will be delinquent adults do not go on to become tomorrow's criminals.

Despite these concerns about the Prime Minister's approach, the idea of early intervention into children's lives to prevent problems in the future has become more influential in the last decade or so. The obesity scare is another example of where we observe a fat child and automatically see the obese adult of the future.

Perhaps the worst example of this rather bleak and deterministic outlook has occurred in America, where the mini-boom in new-born babies - largely due to bigger immigrant families - has led to futuristic predictions of rising crime. The pessimistic logic here, as author of American Youth Violence Franklin Zimring notes, quoting an influential US criminologist, is that more young people equals more "muggers, killers and thieves than we have now".

The intensified focus on childhood behaviour over the last decade or so has led some critics to argue that the current political climate is anti-youth.

Look at the curfews, the Asbos, the talk of Neds and Hoodies, they say.

Today's children and young people are treated like second-class citizens.

But this interpretation is back to front, as it is not that the governments over here or in the States are anti-youth, but rather that they have given up on adulthood.

Take the term "juvenile delinquent", for example, a term that received some criticism in the past for portraying young people as being prone to criminality. Ironically, this term also held within it a sense that crime was something that young people grew out of. Crime here was seen as being somewhat age-specific. It was assumed - often rightly so - that, as young people matured into adults, they would change, develop, become more socialised and leave behind their criminal misdemeanours.

Today, the term juvenile delinquent has gone out of fashion, in part because this more positive sense of adulthood, compared to childhood and youth, has diminished. "Intervene early" is the call from the Prime Minister, or face the anti-social adults of the future.

If America's, or Britain's, policymakers believed that tomorrow's youth would grow into law-abiding adults, the possibility of more juvenile delinquents would not play on their minds.

Herein lies the nub of the problem. The anxiety about anti-social children and delinquent youth, and the tendency to intervene early, has little to do with the problematic behaviour of either young people or adults. It is rather a reflection of politicians' and policymakers' own sense of impotence in being unable to use political or moral arguments to engage adults and move society in a progressive direction.

If politicians really believed in themselves as politicians, their energies would be focused on the adult population - the citizenry - not children. It would be the ideas and the passions of adults, not the behaviour of children, that would be the basis of their intervention.

Unfortunately, adults are increasingly seen as a simple product of their past, rather than a creative force for now and for the future. And it is this more degraded view of the adult public, not their children, that lies at the heart of Mr Blair's Minority Report.

Stuart Waiton is director of

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