Yesterday a solicitor said – accurately – of her young client; ‘he has never had a childhood’.
You would think, wouldn’t you, that childhood is a period of time that we all go through; something we share as naturally as breathing, something that is common in its nature, if not its complexities, across all cultures. But when we look at what that solicitor said, it’s not that simple. What does it mean to be a child? Is childhood a time of learning and growth, or a time of freedom and play? Or both? In any case, doesn’t everyone have one?
No, of course not. We know that. We all accept that there are children in sweat shops, street children, prostituted children, children in mineral mines. Lots of ink is expended focusing the attention of the world on their plight, and rightly so. But that’s elsewhere. Our society is different. We value the child, surely? Some would say we indulge the child, hence some of the problems. But everywhere we look, there are children, growing up, having fun.
But what about troubled children? ASBO-clad hoodie-wearing tearaways? Those kids that roam our streets creating minor havoc on a daily basis? Is ‘getting into trouble’ a normal childhood experience for them? After all, are children innately good, or are they socialised to be so? And if the socialisation is not carried out properly within the family, should the State intervene? Should these children be in care? After all, we call them ‘looked after’, so that’s what we do, right?
Since the early nineteenth century philanthropists and politicians have collided in their determination to save children, and are still chasing headlines doing so. According to today’s news, the Department of Work & Pensions is to identify and work with 120,000 problem families to help deal with gang-culture. I’m impressed that the DWP can be so accurate about the current number of such families, but then, a quick Google of the words problem families will bring up a series of past headlines by Brown, Blair and Cameron, so maybe they’ve been keeping count.
The Children’s Act 1948 enshrined the right of a Looked After Child to a ‘family life’. It’s a fair bet that the lawmakers of that time had a fairly conservative view of what elements made up family life, but they intended small communities, family structures, routine and care. What they couldn’t determine was the presence, or absence of, the love, affection, discipline and support of positive parenting.
If, as is generally accepted, society ‘constructs’ the child, then does it also ‘construct’ the delinquent?
Neil Postman was in fact talking about the mediation of adult behaviours through a globalised media for children, resulting in truncated childhoods and premature sexualisation. But yesterday’s child has been expelled from the garden too.
To face a child whose entire life experience has been one of abuse and criminogenic upbringing followed by the upheavals of the care system is to face a child that Dickens would have recognised: one that feels real fear but is afraid to show it. To face a child that has ‘never had a childhood’ is to look across an almost unbridgeable gulf in ‘society’ to someone who feels they are in another world, where our rules are irrelevant. To face that child is to face someone who has been created by others. And that IS a problem.