Children as a danger to others

packs of feral children roaming our streets… this terrifying generation of murderous, morally blank wolf-children, fatherless, undisciplined, indulged

one minute then brutalized the next…we need to lock up more of these thugs and punish them.2

This quotation is one of many lamenting the breakdown of law and order, for which children are being held partly or wholly responsible. We monitored articles about children in one suburban local newspaper, and one national paper in July-August 2002. The popular press exaggerates, trivializes and sensationalizes everyday events, but even allowing for common distortions, the comments expressed hostility to children (or else alerted parents to the sometimes quite minor dangers that children faced outside and inside the home – see below). The articles included:

• residents opposition to a local youth club ‘homes and cars had been vandalized and they had been verbally abused by the youngsters’

• dangers of teenage pregnancy

• boys hurt by plastic pellets in a ‘shootout’ between boys using fake weapons

• the substantial costs of keeping children amused in the summer holidays and the waste of money and self-indulgence involved

• the eviction from a council house of a large single-parent family whose children were out of control

• children with weight problems

• young children buying crack cocaine

• noisy children lowering property prices

• noisy children spoiling holidays

• residents wanting soundproof fences around a school to screen the noises of children playing

• truanting children

• children shoplifting

• anti-social behaviour orders versus locking up and ‘leathering’ offenders

• under-age children working

• prosecution of children who attack teachers

• under-age drinking

• gangs of joyriders

• gangs of railway vandals

• ‘vandals as young as five’ causing damage to housing estate

• children watching pornographic films and videos

• children’s litter causing problems for dogs!

In some ways this hostility is nothing new. A trawl of similar papers 20 or 200 years ago would have also revealed fear and hostility towards children on the streets. But one would have expected more sympathetic contemporary attitudes, if only because the UK is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.3 The New Statesman, commenting on the hostility to children, remarked that whilst middle-class parents can purchase activities for children, and arrange the transport to get to them, poor families do not have this manoeuvrability. Their children, already at a disadvantage for space, and without the consumer goods that have become a ‘normal’ aspect of childhood, play out, and in playing out become still more exposed to contempt. Being on the streets per se labels children as coming from poor and uncaring families.

Middle class parents deal with the absence of public play-space for their children through expensive hobbies and clubs, by buying houses with big gardens, or – increasingly – drugging their kids with Ritalin. These are not options open to poor children… It would seem that this is our approach across Britain; we treat poor children with fear and contempt.4

This point is also made by Colin Ward in his classic book The Child in the City.5 He details ways in which children have in the past used city spaces as venues, hideyholes and for sports as various as fishing and ferreting. The book was originally written in 1978. In an afterword in the 1990 edition he suggests that poor children are now more disadvantaged in their access to urban spaces, disadvantaged both by their poverty and by public attitudes towards it. The recent report The State of London’s Children emphasizes that in London there is a higher proportion of children than in other parts of the country, but that poor children, especially children from migrant communities, have less access to goods and services, even those supplied by the state such as education or leisure services. Not only are children restricted in their use of public spaces, but also there are considerable gender and ethnic differences in children’s access to public space.6