Adults behaving badly
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 generation.
Adults who actively intervene help to create a world where teenagers themselves will regard anti-social behaviour as unacceptable.
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