Alarmism that’s no help to children

One of the side-effects of living in a sensation-hungry culture is that the stoked emotionalism of tabloid headlines has become respectable. Not only do politicians prefer to go for feeling rather than thought, but revered institutions come to believe that, in order to win public attention, they need to be hysterical.

This week, thanks to Barnardo’s, the media is full of references to children “behaving like animals”, being “angry, violent and abusive” and “becoming feral”. Almost 50 per cent of adults, according to an ICM poll commissioned by the charity, concur with these views of contemporary childhood. “It is depressing that so many people are ready to give up on children, writing them off as ‘animals’ and ‘feral’,” Anne Marie Carrie, head of Barnardo’s, has said.

But, hang on, the words were not actually used by those questioned. People were asked, for example, whether they agreed that children were becoming more feral. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they responded to a tabloid-style question with a tabloid-style response.

There is something distinctly iffy about the way the survey’s data (none of which is available online at the time of writing) has been used. To the question, “When you think about children who behave inappropriately… at what age do you think it is too late to change them for the better?”, 44 per cent answered that it was never too late, while another 28 per cent opted for between 11 and 16.

How was the story spun? “A quarter of all adults think children’s lives can be thrown away at the age of 10,” Anne Marie Carrie told the Today programme.

Barnardo’s does excellent work, but this ladling out of generalised guilt is more about generating easy publicity than helping children.

Portraying adults as heartless is as wrong-headed and counter-productive as demonising children. Both put a barrier of resentment between generations. Beside the cuddly French and the twinkly-eyed Spaniards, the British have never been great with children but, away from a few benighted parts of society, general standards of parenting are improving.

If we want hope for the future a bit less nagging of the general public and a bit more taking to task of central and local government is in order. Libraries, those windows of hope and information for children, are being closed and boarded up. Youth services are among the first to go in budget cuts.

Barnardo’s is right to point out that Britain is not doing as well by its children as it should, but it should concentrate on changing policy decisions rather than on telling the rest of us, with dubious evidence, how terrible we all are.

Independent, 4 November 2011