• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Politicians are like children: they just don’t know when to stop

Last week an 11-year-old girl who has not yet started secondary school pleaded guilty to causing criminal damage.

Nottingham Magistrates Court heard she had been seen on the streets of the city, 25km from home, hurling rocks at shop windows. Her father, in his daughter’s defence, explained: “She is going through a bad time at the moment and just ran away from her foster place. She has got a sister going through care.”

Numerous children between the ages of 11-14 participated in the looting of shops and the destruction of property that made news around the world. It signifies that childhood has gone astray and that adult authority has been tragically eroded.

Policymakers, politicians and opinion makers point the finger at parents. British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed the collapse of families was the principal driver. “The question people asked over and over again last week was ‘Where are the parents?’ ” asserted Cameron. Either “there was no one at home” or “they didn’t much care or they lost control”.

Reading between the lines, policies designed to “improve” parenting are likely to be one of the main government responses. Cameron has promised to put “rocket boosters” under efforts to turn round 120,000 troubled families and has warned that his government will be less sensitive to claims that its intervention was “interfering or nannying”.

Cameron’s call to turn around 120,000 troubled families represents an excellent example of what can most accurately be described as a fantasy policy. It is based on the delusion that governments and bureaucracies are capable of solving the intimate family problems. But parenting is not an institution that can be reformed through state intervention. Parenting is a cultural accomplishment that is cultivated through decades of interaction in communities. That is why the billions of pounds spent so far on family intervention has failed to realise their objectives.

Worse still, the intrusion of officialdom may be partly responsible for the inability of many parents to control the behaviour of their children in the first place. For more than three decades policymakers and the child-protection industry have sought to stigmatise and criminalise parents who punish bad behaviour.

Campaigns against smacking put many parents on the defensive about exercising any form of restraint. Ironically, as politicians complain that parents don’t control their children, parents are lectured that discipline is repressive and results in dysfunctional children. The term “discipline” carries connotations of an abuse of power. A well-deserved smack on the wrist is represented as a crime against humanity.

The implicit objective of a no-smacking campaign is to restrain the exercise of parental authority. Their wider agenda seeks to undermine the right of parents to discipline their children at all.

No-smacking advocates believe that parents who withdraw affection as an alternative to smacking may cause even more damage to a child, and that punishments designed to make children feel uncomfortable or undignified are just as emotionally dangerous as the physical kind. The main outcome of their crusade is to undermine the capacity of parents to control their youngsters.

Many parents of children arrested during the riots argued that they were not responsible for the violence. One mum of a 13-year-old Manchester boy who appeared before the court exclaimed that “you can’t say what your child’s doing 24 hours a day, no matter what a good parent you are”. Her statement was the cry for help of a mother who is all too conscious of the fact she lacks the means to contain the misbehaviour of her child.

To put it bluntly, adults have become estranged from the task of taking responsibility for the younger generations. Yet the assumption of adult responsibility is critical for the conduct of community life and for the socialisation of children. Our obsessively protective parenting culture that is responsible for the erosion of intergenerational relationships. Adults feel awkward and even anxious about interacting with other people’s young children. A crying five-year-old is no longer picked up and reassured by a nearby adult. A six-year-old boy who misbehaves will not be reprimanded by grown-up passers-by.

Children will always test the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. And that’s how it should be. However today children’s behaviour is no longer contained and controlled through the response of adults. Childcare has become entirely privatised. The neighbour, the shopkeeper, the child’s friend’s father and in many cases even the aunt no longer have a role in the upbringing of a child.

Today the real damage begins 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. A long time before they become teenagers, children know they face no sanctions from anyone other than their parents. Is it any surprise that a minority of teenagers will come to regard the absence of adult intervention as an invitation to bad behaviour?

The reluctance to restrain the conduct of youngsters constitutes an evasion of the task of socialising the younger generations. The failure to communicate a community’s traditions and values leads to its slow disintegration. Children, who have not been taught to take seriously the prevailing norms and values are unlikely to feel strong about adhering to a community’s conventions.

The display of destructive and antisocial behaviour during the riots is the inevitable outcome of the failure of socialisation. The fault lies not with parents but with the failure of society to give meaning to adult authority.

One final point. It is important to emphasise that the origins of the weakening of parental control, the erosion of adult authority and the problem of socialisation are not to be found within the affected communities. Government intervention in family life has done for the self-esteem of its target population what welfare payments have done to the recipients of its largesse. Tragically, well-intentioned social engineering and government policies have systematically devalued the right of parents to discipline their children. When the erosion of adult authority has undermined the capacity of grown-ups to socialise children, is it any surprise that far too many English children, who have little respect for their elders, also have little esteem for the law and the property of others?

If Cameron really wants mothers and fathers to become more effective child-rearers, he should challenge all the petty laws and conventions that force parents on the defensive. He could do worse than launch a campaign to restore adult authority and most importantly he needs to resist the temptation of attempting to colonise family life.

Constructing community life through fostering adult responsibility for the socialising of young people is the only way forward for England.

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