The one in 30 in need of a moral route map

10th July 2009 at 01:00

Do you think most young people are in moral crisis? I would say definitely not. As a society, we buy into a crude and dangerous caricature if we believe they are. The majority know how to be good - perhaps despite us adults.

Millions of young people live positive lives. They are hopeful, ambitious, curious and kind. They have strong friendships. They protect their siblings. They attend school and do the best they can in exams. They have never seen inside a police station and never will. They don't carry guns or knives, or commit acts of vandalism.

They experiment with drugs and alcohol, but they don't binge-drink or spiral into drug abuse. They take their sexual health seriously, but also fall in love and lust and sometimes make mistakes. Most young people exhibit a sense of compassion and character.

We demean and patronise our children when we ask them to be good, when there are so many examples of how to be bad - such as the adults who allow 16 per cent of children to be neglected, abused and brutalised.

As with adults, there are thousands whose moral compass is unacceptably skewed. In Beatbullying's experience of working with young people, about one in 30 is not "good" - although that is a label I normally avoid.

We all know who they are. They are serial bullies who use their physical strength and verbal power to threaten, dominate and intimidate others. They are unable to control their anger or resolve conflict. They are narcissistic, self-serving and often dishonest. They are invariably intolerant of other faiths, belief systems and moral codes. They objectify and commodify their bodies, their sexuality and material goods. They are often habitual truants and academic underachievers. Most, in our experience, have undiagnosed learning or mental health difficulties.

These young people haven't developed character because no one has shown them how. Many live with parents or carers who are addicts or have mental health problems. Many witness domestic violence, or are themselves victims of abuse or neglect.

Others are so ignored by their parents that they can find refuge only in violence, eating disorders, self-harm and social networking sites, where they may discuss their own death.

All of them panic when faced with anger from another person. They have no idea how to navigate a setback. They rarely express emotions, and often recoil from being touched. They overreact to minor problems, often with aggression. Humiliation, or perceived humiliation, makes them feel vengeful and isolated.

Can we make these young people "good"? Of course we can, but it's time-consuming, expensive and complex. Beatbullying has been trying to meet that challenge through our Gateway intensive care programmes for the one in 30. We help them to understand the causes and consequences of their behaviour. They learn how to develop empathy and sympathy and how to relate to their peers and families.

For too long, society has not taught the basics of character, nor set the right example. A disproportionate amount of attention has gone to the perceived "moral crisis" of young people in general, and not enough to the one in 30 who needs intensive intervention.

Emma-Jane Cross, Chief executive, Beatbullying.

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