It was better when we all took it upon ourselves to discipline children
Blame the parents, by all means. Blame the social workers, while you’re at it. Both are rational responses to the revulsion evoked when a mother and her boyfriend are convicted of murdering her four-year-old child over a prolonged period of 100 blows; not again, we say, not again. And then, three days after sentence was passed on Sharon Wright and Peter McKenzie-Seaton in Bradford, a couple are arrested in London for the suspicious death of their toddler and we cry not again. Again.
By the same token, we blame the parents for feral gangs who roam the streets; for violence, for crime, for unprecedented numbers of fatal shootings by gunslingers still only children themselves. Whether it is damage to children or damage by children, sensibly alarmed politicians turn their sights towards families and those professionally charged with effecting cure upon dysfunctional ones. The message reads clearly: they are your children, therefore your job and your responsibility – and, of course, they are. The less clear question, however, might be: are they solely the responsibility of those who raise them? Or should the civilian rest of us also reasonably be expected to play a bigger part?
Current thinking says no. Inadequacies within the insularity of the family are addressed by, for instance, “parenting classes” or, at the posh end, “family therapy”, both designed to address the inadequacies while retaining the insular structure of the unit. In the light of the manifest failure of such an approach, is it time to wonder whether the root of the problems lies in the insularity itself?
The model of the nuclear family, apparently accepted without question by those who seek to nurture it, is not, I venture, entirely historically correct. Its emergence, according to conventional wisdom, is explained something like this: once upon a time, we all lived in enormous, sprawling multigenerational families, paying feudal dues and doffing caps to his liege as young and old scratched a happy living in bucolic pastures where we slept with our goats and breast-fed our chickens – until along came the Industrial Revolution and blew the whistle for time. The need for a mobile workforce became paramount, so the population helpfully parcelled itself into two-generation families, moved into two-up two-downs and slammed the front door behind them.
Police chief calls for alcohol ban in public
Cheshire Chief Constable stepped up his campaign on drink-related youth crime today with call for ban on street-drinking
* Police chief calls drinks industry to account for yob culture
* A daughter’s last letter to father killed tackling gang of vandals
* Father who confronted gang 'was best dad'
Which, I suppose, was pretty much the gist of it, save this: it does not tally with personal observation. Those front doors slammed not in the 19th century, but only in the past few years. In the street where my mother was raised (urban, poor) and, even more recently, in the street where I was raised (shires, middle) the doors of the family units were open – literally and otherwise.
Everybody involved themselves with the maintenance of other people’s children; should a child bunk off school for the day, every adult in the street would know and would think nothing of reprimanding him. We took it for granted that there were eyes everywhere: “Hey, young Sarler! Cut it out! Now!” And when two teenage girls were trusted alone in the house overnight and elected to – how shall I put this? – have a few friends around, our parents came home the next day to a disorderly queue of neighbours busting guts to tell them about it. BLEEP.
The corollary, however, was that if it was inconceivable that we could misbehave without being spotted, so it was inconceivable that anybody could misbehave towards us without equal scrutiny; paedophilia existed, but was scant terror given that pretty much everyone – especially the children – knew who, what and where lay the local kiddie-fiddlers. Strangers they were not.
As for parents of ineptitude or ill intent, they could not possibly have systematically beaten a child to a deathly pulp in one of our streets. It wasn’t just a matter of our being prepared to snitch to authorities, either; face-to-face confrontation was coded, but all understood what it meant. Mrs Jones would be asked, with an air of concern, if she was all right – looking a little tired, we thought; children getting you down? And Mr Jones was home so late last night . . . The Joneses, thus, would know that we knew.
This may well be too much of a Hovis commercial for your taste and naturally it is not a full social snapshot. Nevertheless, in many respects it was better than what followed when, as every sitcom cast a character to remind us, neighbour came to mean nosy and nosy to mean bad. We became fearful of the accusation of interfering in other people’s lives, let alone in other people’s children and – as that made us unknown to the children and they to us – we became fearful of the children themselves.
Last week, in the dappled sunshine of a London park, I did tick off a bunch of brats: surly, early teens who were being horrid to our dog, or I surely would neither have bothered nor, probably, dared. Certainly, there was anxiety; you hear such stories; don’t they all carry knives these days?
The thing is, though, they were local kids – had to be, to be there at all. And if I had engaged with them in the past when they were much smaller, I would have known their names and homes and schools and very likely wouldn’t have felt nervous at all. But I hadn’t, so I didn’t and next time, for all I know, the dog gets it.
Because of our mutual unfamiliarity I may be at risk – and so, in their homes, may they. Two sides of the same chasm. All in the interests of what? Privacy? Rights? Minding our own business?
Hillary Clinton, in 1996, contentiously borrowed from an old African saying and applied to America the idea that “it takes a village to raise a child”. She was roundly condemned, most notably by Robert Dole, who retorted briskly that, no, it doesn’t; it takes a family.
A decade later, with children dying and with children killing, we may ask why we should have to choose between the two positions. The probable truth is that it is now as it ever was: we still need both.