Lessons from the death of a baby

14th November 1997 at 00:00
In all the media acres of comment, surmise, pleading and expostulation over the case of Louise Woodward, convicted for the manslaughter of a baby to whose family she was an au pair in the USA, there was a noticeable absence.

There has been such scant mention of the fact that baby Matthew Eappen died of violence that it would appear that hardly anyone finds the fact surprising. Some of the comment there has been takes us even further along that road; not only is it unsurprising that a baby should be treated violently, but to an extent inevitable.

Much has been said about the tragedy of a teenage girl left for long periods of time with that demanding, difficult, infuriating creature, an infant, and the implication has been that what happened to the baby was virtually unavoidable.

The Woodward trial made one thing very clear. Hitting, shaking, or otherwise roughly handling babies is common enough in Western society to be understandable, even acceptable. This is borne out by UK statistics; the risk of homicide for babies under the age of one year is almost four times as great as that for any other age group.

There are other social assumptions that seem to march alongside. First, that children are becoming more violent, with newspapers leaping on tales of children committing violent crime - who can forget the coverage of the James Bulger case? - with press conjecture about the possibility that Matthew Eappen had been attacked by his two-year-old brother. And second, the reason for the increased wildness of the young is increased laxity on the part of their elders, who should be "firmer", which usually means "punish more".

These assumptions and others of the same type about children need to be considered and analysed in depth. And it was to do just that that the Gulbenkian Foundation set up a Commission on Children and Violence to look at the degree of and the roots of it, both against and by children. This has led to the setting up of a forum on the issues.

The time for such a group is undoubtedly right. People everywhere are concerned about childhood experiences and there have been major changes in lifestyle because of that concern.

For example, fewer and fewer parents allow their children to spend time unsupervised outside their homes playing in the ways that many of them enjoyed in their own childhoods, for fear of violence. More and more is expected of teachers in terms of protecting children, not only from strangers but from each other. The issue of bullying tops many parental agendas.

But what more can teachers do? More playground supervision? More punishment of bullies? Surely there is a limit to how much responsibility can be put on teachers' shoulders? Isn't this a social problem that society must solve and not leave to educationists?

There is a great deal, in fact, that teachers could do to reduce the acceptance of violence against children but which too few are encouraged to do. There are school which have anti-bullying strategies, ranging from "Bully Courts" using peer controls to the teaching of social skills that deflect and defuse violence, but there are still teachers who believe that children "have to learn to take the rough and tumble of the playground" even if that includes a bit of beating up, and who advise parents to tell bullied children that they "have to hit back" because "standing up to bullies and giving them a taste of their own medicine is what is needed".

But these are not merely old-fashioned and negative methods of dealing with the problem; they are totally ineffective in ending the cycle of violence. What is needed is much more of the sort of work being done in enlightened schools where the emphasis is on teaching children how to recognise their own feelings - such as anger, fear and frustration - and why they have them, and through that, understanding other people's feelings. Children who are taught skills such as self-control, assertiveness (not aggression, note, but the calm assertiveness that comes with self-esteem) and problem-solving, will not need to be violent against others, but can comfortably defuse fraught situations.

Of course it's very difficult to teach this at school if at home it is taken for granted that the right way to rear children is with wallops and verbal abuse and threats. Violence is learned behaviour; the child who is hit goes to school to be a hitter of other children.

It is a sickening fact that 770 out of every 1,000 children suffer physical punishment. But all the same, those children can be taught, and via them, so can their parents. It will take a long time to bring up a generation of parents who regard the hitting of a child or the shaking of a baby with the same horror today's parents show at men who beat their wives - another piece of social behaviour once assumed to be so common as to be normal - but it can be done. And it will have to be teachers who do it, at school.

Many have already done a superb job in teaching children to develop caring values. The drive towards concern for animal welfare, towards the protection of the rain forest, compassion for people threatened by famine and natural hazards like earthquakes has been driven by the engine of children's awareness and empathy.

More and more children, for example, are becoming vegetarians because of their concern for animal rights; and these are values that they have learned at school from teachers who themselves have commitment to compassion. In the same way teachers could - and must - ensure that today's children, when they become parents, will not take it for granted that so many babies die because of violence.

For more details about the Forum on Children and Violence, contact Janet Convery, 0171 843 6309

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