The news is full of stories about the ‘recent’ increase in youth violence and the hot topic at the moment is the question of how we deal with it as a society. Police stop and search tactics are increasing, much to the dismay of minority groups who feel that they will be unfairly targeted and metal detectors are being introduced into public places, all to make us feel safer.
Something is missing though and the biggest issue of all is being overlooked; our children are being brought up with little regard for the law and no respect for adults – the root of the problem lies at home, often with parents who either have no respect for law and order themselves or who are too ‘liberal’ to do anything about their unruly kids.
It’s not fashionable or PC to discuss punishment when it comes to children but every society needs control, otherwise you have anarchy, starting with the kids. Almost all of our learning with respect to discipline and behaviour is derived from our upbringing and the pressure of peers as we get older. We copy the behaviour of those we respect and want to be like, so if you are living in an environment that teaches you not to fear the police and authority; where violence is seen to be the solution for every problem and where your friends are made up of the same type of person with the same upbringing, then you are more than likely to become a product of it.
The recent stabbings, more notably of the Harry Potter actor, have highlighted the difficulties we now face but they have been sown by us. I watched three young lads, probably 13 year-olds, mucking about on The Strand at 7am. They weren’t dressed for school and I’m not sure if it was a school holiday but they were amusing themselves by running around and bumping into people who were on their way to work. They used straws to blow little bits of paper at each other and then started targeting commuters as they climbed the stairs from the underground – spitting at them then running away. It seems a small issue and no more than high jinx I know, but what I was seeing was the beginning of something much more progressive – these kids had no fear of the consequences of what they were doing. There simply is no punishment for their actions, however innocuous they may seem.
What if one of those kids had knocked someone over when they bumped into them? They run away, someone possibly gives chase. They may even get caught. Then what? You can’t clip them behind the ear like in the ‘good old days’ because that’s assault and battery. You can’t even hold on to them physically because it amounts to the same thing if they decide to complain about it. One of them may be carrying a weapon and your life ends because you stood up for yourself. It all seems melodramatic in text but you read about this stuff every day now.
I’m not an advocate of hitting children…or anyone for that matter but I think a little bit of discipline at home is necessary. I grew up believing that physical punishment was normal; my natural father regularly beat me, sometimes seriously and I truly believed, at the age of five or six, that he wanted to kill me but it didn’t stop me being a naughty child because almost all children are naughty. What I needed was respect and love and I needed a strong, leading character in my life to help me decide what was right and wrong; beating the hell out of me for stealing sweets from Woolworths was hardly the right way to shape my character. I was lucky, however and my step-father changed me when I was in my teens. I believe that his behaviour affected mine so profoundly that I began to see sense.
I won’t even drop litter – it would make me feel guilty! I’m not perfect but I have a sense of social responsibility that is part of me now. The kids that are killing each other have no such sense; they have a hierarchy within their peer group and that’s pretty much where their allegiance lies. That doesn’t mean they can’t be changed but the older they become and the longer we wait, the harder it will be to affect them. That’s why the Government’s new video on knife crime is such a joke. Young people who were asked to comment on it suggested, quite correctly, that it wouldn’t make any difference because it almost glamorises violence and ‘we see worse on video games’. Another spokesperson for youth stated that knife carrying youngsters often film their own acts of violence anyway, so giving them a professional produced piece of fiction is laughable.
The recent murder of 17 year-old Amar Aslam, who was beaten to death in a park in broad daylight should hint at the value of the Government’s weak efforts to thwart the spread of such acts because this young man wasn’t stabbed or shot, so whether a weapon is used or not is irrelevant to the problem.
His mother appeared on the news and she stood bravely in front of the camera asking that people ‘bring up their children responsibly’. Now, I have been decried by at least one critic of my book where the hint of racism was used to defend his/her description of a single line in which I specifically mention how impressed I was with the behaviour of the Muslim families I have visited in the course of my profession. I was simply defining something that has also hit the headlines recently - the decline in social values as a result of the deterioration of Christianity as a backbone for good values. I am not a religious person but I truly believe that we all need guidance and religion, or any belief that teaches moral fortitude, is important in society. The Islamic faith, notwithstanding its very few radical followers, among many other faiths, is so strong among its people that you don’t tend to see decline in family values and therefore children’s behaviour with respect to the law and basic respect for others. I am, of course, reflecting only on my own experience with such families.
Even our pets are taught right from wrong. I would argue that people who allow their dogs to wander around and foul the streets are the same people who let their kids run riot and go out at night without any thought of where they are or what they are getting up to. It’s entirely natural for young children to disobey and take risks; without this instinct they would never learn for themselves but without consequences and punishment, neither will they clearly learn the difference between right and wrong.
As long as we continue the debate without dealing with the root of the problem, we will churn out new generations of indifferent, socially inept people and they will have children who act the same way.
In the United States it’s not uncommon for drunk drivers to be taken to the morgue and shown the result of their carelessness. Why don’t we do the same with anyone found carrying a knife? And please don’t bleat to me about how cruel that would be; if you carry a deadly weapon you deserve to be shown what it will do to someone if used. Show these individuals a couple of stabbed or shot corpses – tell them who they were and what family they had – shock them into realising what they will end up like.
Another sound argument, in my opinion, is the reintroduction of National Service. Again, it’s not a popular liberal solution because there will always be those who say that teaching our youngsters to kill is counter-productive but the army also teaches respect, discipline and teamwork. I’m not naïve, I’ve been a soldier and I know there are imperfections there too but look at how deep all this is running – our armed forces are under attack by the very people they defend just for doing their job, whether politically that is right or wrong is irrelevant. This is just another clue to the decline of respect and it comes about in this case because some people have lost faith.
Our children have no faith in the system because all we hear about is how corrupt and dishonest our elected leaders are. That is completely understandable; if you look up to someone and they disappoint you then trust and respect is gone. Many of our kids live in poor, underprivileged areas and have little choice but to turn to gang culture, drugs and violence in order to survive. This isn’t their fault – its ours.
I wouldn’t dare to take the moral high ground here because I know how bad I was as a child and I still remember the need to be popular and give in to peer influence but if all children understood where the line was and what the ramifications were then crossing it would require greater consideration.
A spokesman for black youth in London put it very succinctly on the news recently; those who carry knives have power and credence in their peer group (or gang if you want) but once they’ve killed someone, where do they go from there?