The real problem today is not
that 'yoofs' are running riot, but that grown-ups lack the confidence
to engage with them.
It was recently reported that young people in Britain consider
having an ASBO – an anti-social behaviour order – to
be a ‘badge of honour’. These arbitrary rulings against
youths are now seen as ‘glamorous must-haves’, evidence
that you are a rebel standing outside of conformist adult society.
How did such a situation arise?
Teenage behaviour has always been a cause of adult concerns. But
something important has changed in the way adult society perceives
teenagers today. For better or worse, large numbers of British adults
have become totally estranged from the world of young people. Many
adults, especially the elderly, feel anxious, even scared, when
they encounter groups of youths in the streets. That is why the
IPPR’s warning about the scourge of teenage anti-social behaviour
has had such resonance in British society.
The Institute of Public Policy Research – or IPPR –
recently published a report titled Freedom’s Orphans: Raising
Youth in a Changing World. It raises important issues, but its interpretation
of the problem is wrong and its policy-orientation misguided. Pointing
the finger at the bad behaviour of teenagers overlooks the fundamental
issue: that what is really distinct about Britain today is not the
behaviour of youngsters but the behaviour of adults.
The problem is the inability of adults to take responsibility for
guiding and socialising children. Men and women rarely interact
with children other than their own, often feeling too awkward to
intervene when children misbehave and too confused to give support
to those who are in trouble. A long time before they become teenagers,
children sense and know that they face no sanctions from any adult
other than their parents.
A constant display of adult responsibility for children is a precondition
if youngsters are going to be properly socialised. But today, we
actively discourage and are suspicious of all forms of adult solidarity.
Apparently only the parent and the professional have the authority
to deal with kids. With the breakdown of inter-generational relationships,
children rarely have constructive encounters with grown-ups –
and thus the real damage is done when children are as young as seven
or eight. Ironically, the breakdown of adult solidarity, which is
driven by the paranoid imperative of child protection policy, leads
to a situation where young people’s behaviour is uncontained
by the intervention of responsible grown-ups.
The IPPR is concerned that youngsters learn too much from one another
instead of from adults. In fact it’s perfectly normal and
desirable for teenagers to share experiences and devise a common
culture. They are entitled to kick against the adult world; and
so long as grown-ups are prepared to interact with them, such generational
tensions can be creative and dynamic. The IPPR’s call for
undermining teenage culture by putting young people into professionally-run
schemes evades the real problem. We need to get rid of the irrational
regime of child protection that forces adults out of the world of
children. Grown-ups need to be in close contact with children, and
they should be encouraged to take responsibility for the younger
Adults who actively intervene help to create a world where teenagers
themselves will regard anti-social behaviour as unacceptable.
on spiked, 9 November 2006