Do teens deserve a bad press?

29th July 2005 at 01:00
A Labour MP wants action now to stem a tide of teenage yobbishness, while a best-selling author says young people are unfairly maligned. Below, TES readers give their views.

YES says Frank Field.

Do teenagers deserve all the bad press they receive? Definitely yes. But that doesn't take us far - the link between teenagers and bad behaviour is not a simple one.

And it's not just the teenagers - in many cases parents are equally culpable. Anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) on teenagers and their families have become a part of the daily news for good reason.

Ten years ago, a group of pensioners came into my Birkenhead constituency surgery to tell me how lads ran across their roofs, peed through their letterboxes, banged on their windows while they were watching television and jumped out at them in the dark.

There is little doubt that standards of behaviour in Britain are disintegrating. And it gets worse - the younger each child is, the more likely that their behaviour will be less civilised than the generation before.

But it's up to us to take responsibility for how our young have turned out, and for the way they behave. For far too long the debate about what citizenship entails in this country has been muted, to put it mildly.

Valiant attempts were initiated by David Blunkett when Home Secretary to get a national debate going. The horrendous bombings on London tubes should start a debate in earnest on what it means to be a British citizen.

We seem to assume in this country that, somehow, progress is inevitable and that life will become more civilised. It is possible, I suppose, if one thinks in terms of thousands of years, that such an idea stands up. But it certainly doesn't fit the time-span since the Second World War.

In the 100 years before the war, Britain had became a noticeably more respectable society. Politicians didn't make this happen - they set the legislative framework but were not the main drivers.

Christianity, and the other great institutions of civil society, were the forces of change. They're the reasons why foreigners so admired the British way of life. It was a self-governing rather than an imposed sense of order.

As we moved into the 1960s, and Britain became much more prosperous, the old order began to break down. But because events generally went on in the same satisfactory way for much of those early post-war decades, no one thought it important to renew the country's social capital.

Suddenly our nation has lost its way. Our traditional forces no longer shape our sense of character. The church no longer teaches us a simple Christian morality. Trade unions no longer play the disciplinary role they once did in factories - and anyway, few work in factories. We no longer belong to friendly societies which were responsible for mini welfare states and which insisted members adhere to minimum standards of behaviour.

So the list could go on.

We can't indulge in some fantasy about turning the clock back. We now need to focus on stemming the tide of yobbishness and disorder. We need to stress the importance of parenting, and particularly the nurturing of the very young. And we need a wider debate on what citizenship means.

It's time to insist on the primacy of duties over rights if we are to build a society that exercises freedom in a way which does not destroy order.

The Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton was a refugee to this country, and said this of England: "I know very well that it is not a realm of unfailing virtue and goodness. (But) it managed to produce a form of existence which is freer of sins against one's neighbour than any other community has attained - it excels in having come to terms with the fact that people in large numbers need both to be conscious of one another and leave one another alone."

It is this act which we are fast losing and it is upon the young that the sins of their forefathers are being visited.

Frank Field is Labour MP for Birkenhead

NO says Melvin Burgess.

People pick on teenagers. They've been doing it for centuries. Teenage pregnancies, the breakdown in community values, violent behaviour in schools, cheating at exams. The youth of today! What went wrong - again.

We have a strangely neurotic view of teenagers. We behave as if they're utterly unpredictable when in fact, most of them live extremely proscribed lives. Their languor infuriates us, we fear the strength and vigour of young men and the beauty of young women.

Above all, we're deeply suspicious of their sexuality. We fill them up with dire warnings of pregnancy and disease when we all know that sex is one of the nicest things. We treat young men as if they're part clown, part rapist, and young women as if they're a bunch of mad sluts. We reduce sex to mechanics, issue them with condoms and tell them not to bother.

Politically, young people are an easy target. They have no vote, little spending power, no organisation. They don't kick back, which is why politicians love to go for them. Look how they spend money on them.

Education education education - and punishment. Sometimes it's the same thing.

The amount of work you need to do well at GCSE has changed out of all recognition in recent years. Schools have responded to government pressure for good results by passing the pressure on. The year between GCSEs and A-levels, which people used to get off, is filled up with AS-levels - that's three sets of major exams in as many years. Success rates go up, and still we moan on at them.

But what about curiosity? What about culture and understanding? What about just being young?

Teenagers are the group at the highest risk from mental illness. They bear the brunt of violent crime, of over-zealous politicians and an over-ambitious education system. The signs of stress are there to see - increased suicides, increased prescriptions of anti-depressants and so on.

How do we respond to this threat to our children's health? We press them harder. These days we even have legislation designed for use against teenagers - the Asbo.

Nearly half of all Asbos are used on youths - does anyone seriously think half of bad neighbours are that young? Every civil rights organisation in the land has expressed concern about this dodgy piece of legislation precisely because it picks away at the civil rights of children. There is no evidence that they work; yet the Government aims to expand their use.

Teenagers and children are the only group we apply censorship to, and we do it with inappropriate thoroughness. At what age does the average child watch their first "18"-rated film? Nine or 10, sitting with mum on a Friday night. It's a futile practice that ignores how young people behave and panders to right-wing newspapers and bored politicians who ran out of ideas back in the 1970s.

I come into contact with a lot of young people through my work, and the overwhelming impression I get is of likeable, excitable, hard-working (too hard-working if you ask me) enthusiastic people who respond to the pressures we pile on them valiantly and with good humour, despite suffering much stress because of it.

We all know that we have some difficult social problems in this country.

Small gangs of badly behaved youths cause nasty problems in some areas, and need tackling, the same as any other group.

But young people should have the rights that the rest of us enjoy. We forget that they are coping with the same problems we are, sometimes more so, and that they deal with all this, despite their youth, with a good deal of common sense, kindness and trust. It's our business to reduce that burden, not increase it.

Melvin Burgess is author of novels for teenagers, including Junk and Doing It. His next book, Bloodsong, will be published by Andersen Press in September

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