It has happened before in Britain, but last weekend’s horror story of two children almost doing two others to death lost none of its shock value for all that. Two brothers, aged 10 and 11, set upon two other boys, aged 11 and 9, on the outskirts of an English village, bashing, slashing and burning them as well as stealing their money, mobile phones and trainers. The nine-year-old was found, barefoot and soaked in blood, wandering along a street in town. The 11-year-old was found unconscious with his scalp slashed.
Comment has been flowing freely in an attempt to understand what turns some children into “little monsters” or even “incarnations of evil”. Nicci Gerrard in the Daily Telegraph sees the fact that the attackers were newly arrived in a care facility in the town as significant — and it surely is. Family breakdown is the cause of much — most — juvenile crime and what the Brits call anti-social behaviour. She also notes: “This distressing story follows an intense scrutiny of childhood; it seems like an apt and ghastly demonstration of the anxiety that has been expressed by think-tanks, children's charities, teacher associations and cultural commentators,” about a “growing crisis in childhood”.
Gerrard also comments perceptively:
“The way that we think of children today is very different from the way that we thought of them in previous centuries. We live in a post-Christian, Romantic age: we do not believe in original sin, that we are born imperfect and in need of religious redemption. Instead, we have the Wordsworthian idea that a child is born perfect and uncorrupted and only gradually becomes blemished by the world. As Romantics, we are deeply shocked and disturbed by the image of young boys behaving with such frenzied cruelty: it seems as if they are acting against nature, and have become mutant versions of themselves. It seems worse to us that a child should behave badly than that an adult should; children who kill and torture become like emblems of an innate evil…
Then she proposes “an alternative version of children in which they are a chaotic package of impulses, desires, appetites and fears.” Think, Lord of the Flies. “Perhaps it is surprising that these terrifying incidents do not happen more often and that the restraints placed on children who do not yet possess a learned conscience, a socially-inherited morality, are as successful as they are.”
But why are there 10- or 11-year-olds without a developed conscience and moral code? Because, says Gerrard, they come from deprived homes and bad institutional alternatives: “The family is a dark place and the homes that replace them hidden ones.” And here she throws in the towel: “Anything that is done – the overhaul of the social services, the increase in pay and status for those who work with children in care homes and in foster families, the slow and painful attempt to end child poverty – will be gradual, partial and messy, and there will always be people who fall through the nets.”
But there would be fewer casualties, surely, if, instead of dismissing “the family” as “a dark place” she and the rest of the commentariat recognised the need for social support of the family — real families with two married parents, who are the ones best equipped to give children the upbringing they need. It’s true that all the other remedies she mentions will fail; true also that some families will also fail. But with proper recognition of what a family is, there would not be the epidemic of social problems that has produced “breakdown Britain”. ~ Daily Telegraph, Apr 7