Do British adults really look upon children as ‘vermin’… or did the charity find what it wanted to find in its latest public survey?
‘It is appalling that words like “animal”, “feral” and “vermin” are used daily in reference to children’, said Martin Narey, the chief executive of the children’s charity Barnardo’s, as he unveiled a new survey this week which apparently shows that adults in Britain suffer from an ‘unjustified and disturbing intolerance of children’ (1).
Yet who was it that introduced these foul words into the public debate about kids? Barnardo’s itself! It was the pollsters employed by Barnardo’s to survey 2,021 people who asked loaded questions about whether children can be viewed as ‘feral’, even as ‘animals’, who are ‘infesting’ our streets.
What Narey, and the subsequent media coverage, implicitly presented as a groundswell of intolerant prejudice against animalistic children is nothing of the sort. Rather, Barnardo’s has carried out a shameless piece of advocacy research, designed to discover the prejudices that it is convinced (by its own prejudicial outlook) are lurking within the adult population.
The media have had a field day with Barnardo’s survey findings. ‘Britons fear and loathe “feral” children’, says Reuters. Some media outlets have taken the research as evidence that adults have a warped view of kids (see the Guardian, for example), while others have welcomed it with open arms as confirmation that British yoof really are going to hell in a handcart. ‘Half of British adults are scared of children who “behave like feral animals”’, screeched the Daily Mail (2).
The coverage all springs from Barnardo’s press release, titled ‘The shame of Britain’s intolerance of children’. It tells us that ‘more than a third (35%) of people agree that nowadays it feels like the streets are infested with children’. Something about that wording doesn’t ring true. Have you ever heard anyone say the streets are ‘infested’ with kids? I haven’t, either. But then, no member of the public volunteered to Barnardo’s the view that Britain’s streets are ‘infested’. Rather, the image of ‘infestation’ was introduced by the Barnardo’s-employed pollsters.
They put the following statement to their 2,021 respondents, ‘Nowadays it feels like the streets are infested with children’, and asked them to agree or disagree. How is one supposed to respond to such a bald, black-and-white statement, where there’s no room for manoeuvre? What if you are, say, an elderly person who thinks there probably are too many kids hanging around on street corners, when they could be in youth centres or on football pitches instead, but you would not necessarily use the word ‘infested’? Do you say ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ to the survey statement?
In the event, eight per cent ‘strongly agreed’ and 27 per cent ‘agreed’, adding up to Barnardo’s total of ‘35 percent’ who think the streets are infested with children. A large majority, 46 per cent, ‘disagreed’; and strikingly, 14 per cent ‘strongly disagreed’, almost twice the number who ‘strongly agreed’. Maybe some of this 60 per cent who disagreed or strongly disagreed with the idea that Britain’s streets are infested with children were thinking to themselves: ‘What a disgusting sentiment. Why am I being asked this question?
Even worse, having introduced the noxious notion that Britain’s streets are ‘infested’, and found that some people seemed to agree, the chief executive of Barnardo’s then went on to say that ‘it is appalling… that words like “vermin” are used daily in reference to children’ (3). Are they really? The survey doesn’t mention ‘vermin’ and so far as we know none of the respondents volunteered the belief that children are verminous. Rather, Barnardo’s is extrapolating from its already loaded question about ‘infestation’ the loaded idea that British adults have an ‘unjustified and disturbing’ view of children as ‘vermin’. No we don’t. You just think we do.
The question on whether children are ‘feral’ was even more convoluted. ‘Most adults think children are feral’, claimed the newspaper headlines, as if Barnardo’s had uncovered a scientifically measurable prejudice against young people (4). In fact, Barnardo’s put the following statement to its respondents: ‘People refer to children as feral but I don’t think they behave this way. Do you agree or disagree?’
Eh? Come again? I write and edit words for a living, and even I was bamboozled by this statement. Does one say agree or disagree to the first part (‘People refer to children as feral’) or the second part (‘But I don’t think they behave this way’)? It took me a couple of minutes to work out that I would say ‘agree’. Forty-two per cent of respondents agreed with Barnardo’s statement (that is, they agree that people refer to children as feral but don’t think that is a useful description), while 45 per cent disagreed with Barnardo’s statement, which presumably means they think children are in some way feral (at least I think it does; I’m confused again). Not surprisingly, 13 per cent said ‘Don’t know’, which was by far the highest ‘Don’t know’ response for the whole survey. If there had been a choice that said ‘I have no idea what you are talking about’, I imagine it would have been selected by, ooh, at least 20 per cent of the respondents.
Whatever this bizarre question on feral children tells us – about Barnardo’s scribes; about the illiteracy of pollsters; about the duplicity of advocacy research – it does not scientifically prove that ‘most adults think children are feral’. Just as the responses to the loaded statement ‘British children are beginning to behave like animals’ – with that horrid animal image being projected on to public debate by Barnardo’s itself – does not tell us everything, or anything really, about how adults view, interact with and care for children.
The black-and-white nature of Barnardo’s questioning must have also proved problematic in relation to the issue of ‘professional help’. The following statement was put to the respondents: ‘Children who get into trouble are often misunderstood and in need of professional help.’ Forty-nine per cent of respondents disagreed, and this was held up in Barnardo’s press release as evidence that adults are not sufficiently sympathetic to the plight of children. On the other hand, the response might signal a healthy suspicion towards ‘professional help’. Certainly the mums and dads among the 2,021 respondents might kick against the idea that troubled children need outside intervention rather than discipline or care within the family home.
Barnardo’s has simply found what it wanted to find: that British adults don’t understand children, and in fact even fear and loathe them, and thus we need expert charities to educate the British public about how wonderful children are and how we should look after them. Charities like, oh I don’t know, Barnardo’s maybe? It is telling – in the extreme – that these survey results were released just a few days before Barnardo’s is set to launch its first-ever TV advertising campaign calling upon us all to ‘stop demonising children’. How convenient to discover that ‘most British adults’ demonise children just before you launch a campaign against the demonisation of children. The gods have smiled on Barnardo’s.
It is of course true that adult society has a somewhat fraught and even fearful relationship with young people today. As a consequence of a growing sense of insecurity, and a collapse of adult solidarity, young people are increasingly looked upon as either vulnerable victims or potentially violent tearaways. This view of youth is stoked by politicians, the media and even children’s charities, all of whom feed us a constant diet of anti-social behaviour scares, stories about chavs, slags, gangs and knives, and concerns that childhood obesity and binge-drunkenness will turn our children into feckless adults. However, this does not mean that adults think children are vermin or animals that are infesting our streets. And by squeezing today’s difficult relationship between adult society and young people into this moralistic straitjacket, in which everything is reposed as a war between dumb adults and victimised children, Barnardo’s is only making matters worse.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by Barnardo’s advocacy research. This is a charity (founded in 1867) that has long relied upon presenting children as victims and adults as buffoons. As one study of Barnardo’s early years in Victorian times says, ‘Barnardo’s philanthropic narratives’ set out to ‘popularise the plight of poor children… while simultaneously casting the adult poor out of the English community and calling into question their basic rights to citizenship’ (5). Today, too, Barnardo’s is popularising the idea that children are victims while questioning adults’ moral priorities. All the better to boost the fortunes of a charity that loves to play the role of in loco parentis.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Julian Grenier wondered why commentators who praised Sue Palmer’s Toxic Childhood didn’t spot its poisonous arguments about the working-class. Alka Sehgal was not impressed by Palmer’s poisonous ‘advice’. Helene Guldberg said the view that the modern world damages our children reinforced a culture where childhood comes with a health warning. She said a plethora of books are peddling a similar childish panic. Elsewhere, she asked if children are really being held hostage by parental fears. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.
(1) The shame of Britain’s intolerance of children, Barnardo’s, 17 November 2008
(2) Half of British adults are scared of scared of children who ‘behave like feral animals’, Daily Mail, 17 November 2008
(3) The shame of Britain’s intolerance of children, Barnardo’s, 17 November 2008
(4) Most adults think children are feral and a danger to society, The Times (London), 17 November 2008
(5) Imagined Orphans: Poor Families, Child Welfare and Contested Citizenship in London, Lydia Murdoch, Rutgers University Press, 2006