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 (http://www.nspcc.org.uk/inform/…/clinfosheetchildrenincare_wdf56377.pdf)