Posted by: christinelaennec | August 16, 2011

Controlling one’s teenager(s) in Britain

From our escapist holiday I’m going to veer sharply into current affairs.  A lot has been written and said about the civil disorder and looting in English cities last week.  Many people have said things like, “Parents should know where their teenagers are” and “Parents need to control their teenagers”.  A few days ago, eviction proceedings were begun against the parent of a teenager who has been accused (although not yet convicted) of participating in the riots.  As our minister said in church on Sunday, it would seem in this case that the sins of the children are being visited upon the parents.

Of course, not all teenagers are with their original parents.  I’ve been surprised that the debates I’ve heard have never touched on the issue of fostered and adopted children.  I would be curious to know how many of the rioters were in the care system, especially given that we know that over a quarter of UK prisoners were in care as children.*  I’ve also wondered why no-one has spoken of the fact that the school-leaving age in Britain is 16.  Does this not imply that 17-year-olds are accountable for themselves rather than answerable to their parents?

I have also heard people on both sides of the political spectrum say that we can’t hold parents accountable for their children’s actions because parents can no longer actually exert control over them.  Some of the people saying this are in favour of bringing back whipping, believing that indoor physical violence is the answer to preventing outdoor physical violence.  I disagree strongly with this, but find myself agreeing that British parents of unruly teenagers are very often powerless.

Let me tell you a little tale.  Once upon a time there was a family whose teenage son went to a residential school about 75 miles from their home.  Most weekends he travelled back to stay with them.  These weekends were extremely difficult, because of his challenging behaviour.  He found them very difficult as well because he didn’t have all the entertainment available at his school (other kids his age, gym, up-to-date video games, excursions, etc.)  One night, while the rest of his family were tucked up in bed, he jumped from his window a storey up from the ground below.  Miraculously, he wasn’t harmed, and he went off to explore the life of the city.  The family were awakened by his ringing the doorbell about 6 a.m.

At 9 a.m., the mother went to the police station.  She told them what had happened, and asked if they could possibly check their CCTV footage to see where her son had gone in the night.  They said no, that wouldn’t be possible.  She asked if a policeman would have stopped her 13-year-old son wandering the streets in the wee hours of the night.  They said no, not unless he had been engaged in criminal activity.  She found this astonishing but the police explained that it wasn’t actually illegal for a 13-year-old to be out on the streets all night.  They seemed a bit taken aback at her concern, and she certainly was taken aback by their seeming nonchalance.  She then asked what she should do:  should she lock the bedroom windows?  To this they said, no, no!  Because if she did that, the boy might well break the window and hurt himself jumping out, in which case she would be responsible for any injury he might sustain.  And that was the end of her trip to the police station.

And this story is of a loving family whose child was receiving a huge amount of care and input, both at home and also through his residential school.

Michael and I also found ourselves in the odd situation of agreeing with Ian Duncan Smith, the Conservative Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.  On a televised debate recently, he argued that we need much earlier intervention in families who are struggling to raise their children.  He said in some cases this should be as early as the age of 3.  Everyone scoffed – but he’s absolutely right.  Ten years later, you are left watching the window flap back and forth in the early morning light, while your teenager is goodness only knows where.

*Children in Care:  A ChildLine Information Sheet (…/clinfosheetchildrenincare_wdf56377.pdf)



  1. Thankyou for this, Christine. You are very wise. And I think my daughter, who worked for three years for the Fairbridge charity in London, would agree with you and Michael about intervention.
    When my children were teenagers, it was before the days of mobile phones, but I don’t really think that would have made a lot of difference. They made it clear to me that if they went out with their friends, they could (probably) tell me the first place they were heading for, but after that they really couldn’t say where they would be moving on to. Did I really want them calling me at 2 am, they asked, to say they were leaving Catherine’s now, and going on to Joanna’s house? I think they usually told me the truth, but how do you know? I learned to accept that an aspect of parenthood is lying half awake until eventually you hear your child coming in and closing the front door. And there was the occasion when no. 2 child, not by any means the wildest of them, fell asleep at a party. She woke up eventually in the otherwise empty sitting-room of the host family, and found her way home round about dawn. In some ways I’m glad that they are in their thirties now.

  2. Oh yes, teenagers will go out and do crazy things. Parents can try to stay on top of things, but we can’t and probably shouldn’t know where they are at all hours. And mobile phone don’t really let you know a lot, maybe they actually give parents a false sense of security. But you are right, the kids who go do crazy destructive things need to have positive things long before they are teens.

  3. Hi Christine, this is an age old debate, I think, blame the children or blame the parents? Being the mother of 4, now grown, and having had my share of late night sneaking out, and getting themselves in scrapes, I would have to say that you are right with early intervention. But peer pressure is very convincing after a certain age and you are left to try and influence them the best you can. It is a sad situation that you have had in England and we here in the states can relate. We had similar during the World Trade Organization meetings, here in Seattle several years ago. Disanfranchised youth all over the world are now acting out and I believe it is very much a societal problem that we all share. We can do our own small part by loving our children and encouraging them to be kind and good and working with organizations that can have a postive influence on the welfare of all children. But as you say, a lot of these children who are acting out are fostered or neglected in some way. Despite my children getting into scrapes as teenagers, they all turned out well, I think because they knew they were loved and supported. You never know in what way each of us can influence a child, our own and others, so it pays to take a kind approach. xx

  4. Interesting. Iceland has a curfew for children: (from wikipedia) Under Iceland’s Child Protection Act (no. 80/2002 Art. 92), children aged 12 and under may not be outdoors after 20:00 (8:00 p.m.) unless accompanied by an adult. Children aged 13 to 16 may not be outdoors after 22:00 (10:00 p.m.), unless on their way home from a recognized event organized by a school, sports organization or youth club. During the period 1 May to 1 September, children may be outdoors for two hours longer.

  5. Very complex issues.

    I remember a story from my teenage years. My parents were out of town and left my sister and me with my 20 year old brother. To put it mildly, he was not responsible. My sister invited friends over. They invited their friends. Pretty soon the house was a mob scene. The neighbors called the police. An officer stuck his head in our front door and told everyone to leave. No one left. I begged the police to kick everyone out. They wouldn’t do it.

    Today the police would ticket everyone for minor in possession of alcohol and possibly go after the parents as well. Really, if parents allow underage drinking, they should be held responsible. But what do you do when the parents have little or no authority over their children?

    It all does begin very young. Raising kids to have purpose and vision for their lives is a key part of preventing the anti-social behavior that is too common in so many places.

  6. Dear Flora, Sigrid, Karen, Dorit and Kelly,

    Thank you so very much for your long and thoughtful comments! I’m so glad to hear that teenage scrapes seem to be a part of growing up for many people, and that the issue of “knowing where your teenagers are” isn’t nearly so simple as the politicians make it sound. I agree with you, Sigrid and Flora, that mobile phones are not the magic solution they might seem, and that our children need to learn to handle freedom and independence.

    It’s also nice to hear that others share our conviction in early intervention. Flora, your daughter no doubt will have been working with families who are in their second or third generation of things like unemployment or fostering, etc. (Not to denigrate in any way the amazing things that both unemployed people and foster parents / fostered people do!)

    Karen, I’d forgotten about the Seattle riots, which were more similar to the London riots I think than the LA riots (which the media were comparing the London riots to).

    Dorit, the Iceland curfew is very interesting. I wonder how it works in practice? I think here children would be bringing lawsuits on the basis that their Human Rights had been violated!

    Kelly, that’s an interesting (and scary) scenario. I bet you were begging the police to throw them out! At first I wondered why your brother wasn’t held responsible, but I suppose in the States, age 20 is still considered a underage, whereas in England and Wales, 18 is adult. In Scotland, you are adult at 16 for most, but not all, things. It’s crazy – you can get married without your parents’ consent at 16 in Scotland, but you can’t vote!

    I couldn’t agree more that it’s fundamental to give children a sense of “purpose and vision for their lives”. And we must love them and believe in them – despite their and our imperfections… You can’t legislate for that.

  7. Dear Christine,

    thanks for sharing your experience, it got me thinking a lot about how I would cope in a similar situation, having a 13 year old (and having once been a teenager who shinned down drainpipes to explore the night). What a lot of the commentators seem to be missing out on is the point I think the police failed to grasp from your visit – that the greatest danger is not from children, but to children. Even the most beligerent wannabe gangsters are so vulnerable. Children in care that I have taught have commented on how much safer they feel in foster care, just having the security of a regular bedtime and a front door that stays locked… I had a wake-up call, myself, on the day after the riots, which came very close and put paid to my eldest’s birthday plans for an independent trip to the cinema with friends. Forced to go out with chaperone, it was remarkable how many people seemed scared of these big boys (all black/mixed race, and, being mates from school sports teams, big-built), yet they were themselves as terrified as the 9-year old who could only assume that it was terrorists who burned the shops next to her school, not just a handful of crazed looters. If people in this country cared for teenagers as much as you did in going to the police station, then everyone might just be less scared of young people…

    Hope you’re all keeping well, and your young people are looking forward to going back to school (and college – is that still going?). x

  8. Dear Tom,
    It’s so great to hear from you! Yes, I agree that children, and especially teenagers and young adults, are so much more vulnerable than we think. I can just imagine the scary cinema-goers scenario. Did Michael ever tell you about the time, when he was a university student, he accidentally went to the skinhead barber? He was amazed at how afraid people were of him, just because of his haircut. He started wearing a woolly cap, and then got a sunburn on his forehead and then looked REALLY scary, apparently. And you know, he would never hurt a fly!

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