Friday, August 24, 2012

The problem with children today: The Liberal Democrats and children - Part 2

Yesterday I posted part 1 of this essay, which I contributed to Graham Watson's 2006 collection Liberalism - Something to Shout About. Here is the second and final part - again, I have turned the original references into hyperlinks for this blog.

You can find details of how to order the book in that earlier post.

Towards a Liberal answer

Ask Liberal Democrats if they believe in children’s rights and they will say they do with some vehemence. In most Liberal and Labour circles, a reference to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is seen to settle any question, much in the way that a quotation from the Bible does for Southern Baptists. Yet we have seen in recent years that, the more rights children have, the less freedom they have.

One reason for this paradox is the extremely odd notion of children’s rights that we now entertain. The last time there was a significant children’s rights movement in Britain was during the late 1960s and 1970s, when political radicalism was in the air more generally. That movement was largely run by children and teenagers themselves and had as its targets abuses like corporal punishment, petty uniform regulations and the keeping of secret records by schools. The youngsters taking part were clear that their rights were to be asserted against the state and the schools that it ran.

In today’s children’s rights movement, there is no place for children themselves and no question of challenging schools – indeed the keeping of confidential professional records is central to the movement. Instead it is parents who are seen as the threat to children’s rights and the state as the body that upholds them.

This odd view explains how a commitment to those rights can coexist comfortably with the remarkably restrictive policies with which we now surround children – curfews, ASBOs and the like. If the 1960s movement was an attempt at a Kids’ Liberation (as it would undoubtedly have been called in those days), then our present-day version has more in common with the child-saving efforts of the nineteenth century.

For this reason, the children’s rights movement is quiet on the strange modern concept of ‘antisocial behaviour’. This construct lumps together serious criminality, which should be dealt with by the courts, and the sort of low-level nuisance that communities should be able to deal with themselves.

Sadly, these days Liberal Democrats are as keen on the concept as anyone: Ming Campbell’s first speech as leader was on crime, and he was at pains to emphasise that his party now supported ASBOs.

Yet when ASBOs first came in, Liberal Democrats did not oppose them because they curbed people’s liberty: we opposed them because we argued that the Antisocial Behaviour Contracts pioneered by Islington Borough Council were more effective. As these essentially applied only to council tenants, and threatened to evict those whose children misbehaved, it is hard to see them as a great improvement.

How do successful communities deal with low-level nuisance behaviour by children? In his Paranoid Parenting, the sociologist Frank Furedi coined the term ‘adult solidarity’. He wrote:
In most communities throughout the world adults assume a modicum of public responsibility for the welfare of children even if they have no ties to them. When the local newsagent or butcher scolds a child for dropping a chewing-gum wrapper on the road, they are actively assisting that boy’s parents in the process of socialization. When a pensioner reprimands a young girl for crossing the road when the light is red, he is backing up her parents’ attempt to teach, her the ways of the world. These displays of public responsibility teach children that certain behaviour is expected by the entire community, and not just by their mum and dad. … 
As every parent knows, in Britain today, fathers and mothers cannot rely on other adults to take responsibility for looking after their children. British adults are hesitant to engage with other people’s youngsters. This reluctance to assume responsibility for the welfare of the young is not simply a matter of selfishness or indifference. Many adults fear that their action would be misunderstood and resented, perhaps even misinterpreted as abuse. Adults feel uncomfortable in the presence of children. They don’t want to get involved and, even when confronted by a child in distress, are uncertain about how to behave.
This is the real reason why children lack freedom in Britain today: an almost total absence of adult authority and adult solidarity. We need a government that increases adults’ confidence in dealing with children, not undermines it by using children’s rights as a stalking horse to increase the state’s power over families.

As Steve Webb and Jo Holland might put it: “All is not well with the nation’s adults”.

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