Tagging three-year-olds for life

The UK government thinks it can cut crime in the future by targeting badly behaved toddlers in the present.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

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A UK Home Office report entitled Crime Reduction Review, which was leaked to the media on 12 June 2005, lays out some ideas for cutting crime in Britain – by targeting toddlers judged to be ‘at risk’ of becoming criminals.

The report proposes training nursery staff to spot children at risk of turning to crime, on the basis of high levels of aggressive behaviour or a family history of criminality. It also proposes providing parenting classes for these children’s mums and dads. The Home Office Strategy Unit, which spent five months compiling the report, concludes that: ‘From the simple perspective of reducing crime…the arguments for focusing resources on the children most at risk are “overwhelming”.’

‘There is perhaps too much concern about the potential negative impacts of targeting children and their families’, the report continues. Children who are not ‘under control’ by the age of three are apparently four times as likely to be convicted of a violent offence once they reach maturity. Eighty-five per cent of prisoners in juvenile detention facilities were bullies at school, say researchers cited in the report, and 43 per cent of male adult prisoners have children with criminal records.

Once the report is published in full, it will be interesting to find out how the above data were gathered. How did they measure whether a child was ‘under control’ at age three? And were the claims of a link between unruly behaviour in childhood and criminal behaviour in adulthood based on longitudinal studies, or retrospective reports? Retrospective reports are, of course, notoriously unreliable.

It is also extremely difficult to isolate variables in longitudinal studies of human behaviour, and almost impossible to quantify the effect of childhood behaviour on adult life. It may be the case that aggressive toddlers turn to crime as adults. Childhood experiences do play a role in informing our attitudes and behaviour later in life, and our personalities start to take shape at an early age. But this does not mean we can determine adult criminality on the basis of childhood behaviour.

Just because children are found to be aggressive at a particular stage in their lives, it doesn’t mean they will continue to be so. Children’s behaviour changes as they grow up. As Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at George Washington University Medical School, points out, measures of behaviour in young children are a poor predictor of later outcomes. A four-year-old may be ‘disobedient’ and ‘difficult’ today, but it isn’t necessarily clear what that means for the child’s behaviour tomorrow.

The meaning of much social and emotional behaviour may not become apparent until the child is older. Behaviours that observationally look very similar can have different meanings for different children. Answering back when spoken to may be a sign of disobedience and insularity in one child, but a sign of self-confidence and inquisitiveness in another.

But even if children who are not ‘under control’ at the age of three are found to be four times as likely to be convicted of a violent offence once they reach maturity, would that merit early interventions? No.

If such tracking of young bullies were to be justified, then why not argue for anti-crime measures for every boy from nursery age onwards? Being born a boy is a clear ‘risk factor’ in leading a child into criminal behaviour, with boys at least 20 times more likely than girls of being convicted of a crime in adulthood: 94 per cent of the prison population in Britain is, after all, male. And while they are at it, what about special interventions for specific ethnic groups – those who are at a higher risk of ending up in jail? Or indeed, for children from ‘broken homes’?

None of these proposals would be seen as acceptable – not yet, anyway. Yet it is no more acceptable to intrude into the lives of children who ‘display bullying behaviour’ in nursery or whose parents are convicted criminals than it would be to intrude into ethnic groups or ‘broken families’.

Some have, quite rightly, warned that labelling toddlers as potential criminals can be counterproductive, or might even prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pam Hibbert, chief policy officer of the children’s charity Barnado’s, argues that ‘attempting to pre-determine outcomes can actually lead to stigmatisation and labelling of children, resulting in more rather than less children entering the criminal justice system’.

But whether or not such early intervention schemes are effective – and there is no convincing evidence that they are – we need to question the values of a government that would threaten liberty in this way. In a free society, the function of the criminal justice system is not to isolate and monitor potential criminals, but to bring charges against those whom it suspects of having committed a crime.

Worst of all, the target-toddler measures might undermine the ability of those working with children to appreciate the distinction between childhood and adulthood. It would be a sad state of affairs indeed if nursery staff were encouraged to monitor children’s every move and word with suspicion – viewing ‘bad behaviour’ as the harbinger of terrible things to come rather than seeing it merely as the clumsy behaviour of an immature and undeveloped, but mostly innocent, young child.

Read on:

Pre-emptive policing, by Helene Guldberg

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Topics Politics


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