Tuesday, January 04, 2005

(Un)Reasonable Expectations--The Infantilisation of Bad Behaviour

Today I arrived in New Brunswick, The town has wi-fi throughout the downtown, but unfortunately I am at the University. Until I can get registered on the University system, my only access will be if I walk into the centre--and as 94 student essays are currently descending on me, that may not be possible.

So, as they used to say on Blue Peter, after giving you instructions for a Thunderbirds landing stage that will take you a week to construct: "Here's one I made earlier."

Dennis the Menace and the infantilisation of bad behaviour (or "bad boys are getting younger")

There is a lot of talk about how youth aren't what they used to be. That boys, in particular, are more violent, more unpleasant. To grace the following point with the word "theory" is probably pushing it a bit, but I'm just not convinced by this argument and I think there are two things going on.

The first is simply that as the western world gets wealthier, a disaffected child, or even simply a wild and rambunctious child can do an awful lot more damage than they could fifty years ago. Fifty years ago a ball through a window hit an ornament. Today it's quite likely to trash a computer or music centre.

The second is that as society's values have changed, the age at which it is still acceptable for a child--and especially a boy--to be a tearaway, oblivious of anyone's interests but his own, has diminished. We expect children to be nice, in a way that just wasn't true in the first part of the twentieth century.

Don't believe me? Take a look at Dennis the Menace over the past sixty years or so. For the North Americans reading this, the British Dennis the Menace is a homophobic bully who preys on William the Softy and passing policemen, and usually ends up getting beaten with a slipper by his Dad. These are moral tales.

The Old Dennis the Menace
(you'll need to scroll down to the cartoon on the right hand side) Clearly in his early teens, from a time when British school boys were kept in shorts until they were about fifteen.

The New Dennis Just as clearly a child.

I'm not trying to excuse anybody here, but there is a big difference between accepting that boys have lots of energy which needs direction or it's quite likely to get out of hand, and trying to pretend that they should have grown out of it, and that if they haven't then they are "bad". Take a look at this article,
Brain scans suggest teenagers are children at heart (it will cost you a pound but once registered, it's an easy system to use). I always have mixed feelings about determinism, but this is one of those classic pieces of research which confirms what we basically all know--children are not adults.

As playground time has been shortened in British schools, and opportunities for teens to play in the streets have disappeared (when was the last time you saw a street football or cricket game?), and as violent sports have been tamed, it isn't just that a kind of child isn't being catered for, it's that s/he is being made to feel wrong.

Last year the
Children's Society reported on just how little play space there is left. Britain is becoming an increasingly unfriendly place for children. And with the new
Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs)> * "Childishness" is rapidly being designated anti-social behaviour and criminalised. I'm not saying all kids are little angels, but the threat of prison for aggravated door knocking?

Yet the equation is simple: the more we define space as not suitable for children, the more their presence in that space is regarded as ipso facto criminal. Funny, immigration law works a bit like that.

*ASBOs are granted by magistrates. Breach of an ASBO means possible imprisonment. So that in effect a child can be sent to prison without a full trial.


Blogger Karen Traviss said...

ASBOs have become a substitute for responsible parenting. The can't-be-arsed section of the public don't instill a few basic rules of behaviour in their offspring, so the sanction swings to the other extreme of letting the state do it. In the good old days, which of course I'm too young to recall, neighbours would complain to your parents about unruly behaviour and you'd get a clip round the ear. That normally sorted it. (It did with me.) Now the state has to administer the clip round the ear, and that inevitably becomes a cumbersome and often ludicrous exercise.

I have no real problem with ASBOs, other than that they can criminalize anything you care to specify, but they strike me as doomed to a degree of failure. They have to be enforced, and there's the problem. Around 20% of court fines still go unpaid in England and Wales, so I don't hold out much hope for ASBOs changing the face of society.

I suspect ASBOs are more an illusion to convince people living in fear of crime that the government is taking action than an effective mechanism for changing public behaviour.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

There's a lot being written right now about the redefinition of standard male/boy behavior as abnormal or even criminal. Some of this is being written by conservative men (and women) in response to and backlash against feminism, but some of it is being written by some very intelligent people like Kenneth Kidd,(Making American Boys)who are not hostile to feminist approaches at all.

One of the better ideas I've heard on this subject is that in our modern society there are simply far fewer avenues within which boys can be physical. The kind of boy who gets into trouble these days in violent ways might once have been working his butt off on the farm or in the factory or doing some other form of manual labor from an early age and not had enough energy left to get in trouble. Now, however, we expect that same boy to be in school, being physically passive, while his body and his hormones are telling him that he needs to do something active. Hence frustration and violent acting out. The apparent rise in ADHD might be explained, at least in part, in much the same way.

I see a lot of young men in college who, a generation earlier, would have gone directly from high school to work. I have a nephew who's a smart kid, but so ADHD that he can barely sit still. Went to tech school instead of college. Doesn't even like to watch tv--too passive. Fortunately for him he became a construction worker, and a very good one at that. He makes decent money and comes home exhausted and able to sit. Oddly enough, he's married to a woman who's working on her Ph.D. in forensic psychology.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Karen Traviss said...

I always suspect that the rise in diagnosis of attention deficit disorder is down to society objecting to kids being normal. I think you're right - the passive and sedentary world we live in today doesn't fit well with the natural childhood phase of being a bit of a handful. I heard of one parent who wanted her three year old medicated for "attention deficit": what does she think three year olds are like?

It's on a par with all those apparently prolapsed organs that surgeons suddenly discovered and had to do something about when standing x-rays came into use...

3:39 AM  
Blogger Andy Sawyer said...

The Dennis thing is interesting: I've always thought of Dennis as 10-11(upper primary school age, about the same age as Richmal Compton's William) but then I haven't read the Beano for a while.

Oh, it's Walter the Softy! I remember that much.

Teenagers certainly were adults in the earlier part of the century, in the sense that by sixteen most males were out there earning; earning very little in menial jobs, most of them, but in the "real world" (ironic quotes). There are a whole host of problems in our upbringing of children at the moment: certainly even (mumble) years ago when I was under ten I *expected* to be out of the house away from parental control. Now, children on their own are suspicious and either potential victims or potential criminals.

I was also expected to behave myself and knew when I wasn't doing so, but that's another story.

I'm not sure what you mean about "aggravated door knocking" as most ASBOs that I have read about have been given for quite serious and malicious harrassment. The point about reading Dennis the Menace or any of these "bad boy" stories as a kid, is that Dennis does what you *don't* do. You *did* know that targetting other people, throwing bricks through the neighbours' windows, was wrong. Some of the reaction to ASBOs, in fact has been *confusing* the fact that "we used to play football/cricket/play fight in the street and occasionally a window got broken" with the deliberate targetting of old and disabled people, and ethnic minorities, as subjects of harrassment.

Although one suggestion I've seen, which came up at the time of the Jamie Bolger murder (for those who don't know, this was a toddler who was abducted and murdered by two older boys in Bootle not far from where I'm writing from) is that the some kids have turned upon vulnerable adults what they were doing to themselves all along, and this is what has resulted in their visibility and the use of ASBOs. This, and the facts that people are designated as "children" for far longer than they were 50 or 60 years ago while there are fewer places for them to be children IN, in public, might explain some of the tensions.

5:17 AM  
Blogger Alison Scott said...

I agree with much of this, but I need to mention street cricket and street football. Here in Walthamstow, where there are no gardens big enough for ball games, kids play cricket (and, to a lesser extent, football) in the street *all the time*. I read regularly in the press that these games have disappeared; I conclude that the writers don't hang out with kids much, travel in cars (street cricket stops whenever there are moving cars around, obviously) and don't tend to frequent the sort of areas where kids play in the street. In a series on 'lost London', the Evening Standard showed a photo of kids in the 30s playing cricket in the street; I could have sent them one taken that week.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Karen Traviss said...

Same here - except on the main roads, which might make for a more interesting game.

I really liked Dennis the Menace as a kid. I can't recall what Minnie the Minx used to get up to, though.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Farah said...

The "aggravated door knocking" I mentioned was an actual case, and it was deliberate and malicious harrassment. But the point is that kids have always been involved in deliberate and malicious harrassment. One of the changes is that adults now object to it. In 1965 if kids pushed crap through the door of a Pakistani or a Jamaican, well, "it's just kids isn't it".

The changes that have taken place are about our attitudes to this behaviour. I don't think we should condone it at all, but we need to be thinking about what it is we are punishing. Sometimes I think it is our own guilt because children almost always target people that they have worked out are regarded as outsiders. I've just read Stephen King's Carrie for the first time and he puts his finger right on it. The adults only react to Carrie's treatment when it makes them feel guilty, and then they come down on the kids like a ton of bricks, not because the attitudes are wrong, but because the manifestation of those attitudes are wrong.

Alison commented about kids in the street in Walthamstow. Living in Bethnal Green for two years was a revelation. In Reading (my weekend residence) you never see children on their own except in the centre--where they are currently refurbishing the park in part to discourage the presence of teens (I had this directly from a member of the steering committee). In Bethnal Green you saw crowds of children, ten upwards, everywhere, and in the courtyards they were younger. Within spitting distance were four elementary schools and one secondary school (11 and up). The kids were loud, noisy, rambunctious, full of energy, and very, very polite. I only got cheeked once. And my three elderly neighbours spent the entire time I was there explaining to me that they were little criminals and thugs.

What was going on? Why the dissonance?

Well to begin with my three neighbours were elderly, Irish and Jewish. The rest of the estate was young and Asian (mostly but not all Muslim). Some of this was flat out racism but much of it was simply that what the young and old want out of a place is very different. If there is a spread of age groups I suspect one has far fewer problems, but in so many "new" estates, inhabitants have come in in cohorts. A bunch of young parents who stay until they are old, and who are then replaced by another bunch of young parents with small children. The two groups overlap, but what I don't see is anyone in the middle.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Karen Traviss said...

Older people and youngsters do indeed want different things from their environment. Unfortunately, too many planners subscribed - and some still do - to the patronising and wholly fictional view that old folk like to be near young people to cheer them up: gosh, the sight of those little cherubs did their old hearts good. So they'd put a playground near an older persons' unit.

They never actually asked either group what they wanted. At least my former employer did try to have blocks of flats exclusively for older residents and not to put families in with them.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Andy Sawyer said...

Alison says they still play cricket in the streets in Walthamstow -- when we moved into Birkenhead 20 years ago the first thing the neighbours kids said was, could we please move our car (which was parked in front of our house) because that was where they normally played football.

We didn't.

And, despite what such an anecdote usually ends with, nothing bad happened at all; they just shifted a little down the street.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Andy Sawyer said...

Sorry, I clicked on "publish" before I finished, I was going to go on to comment about what you said, farah about

"the point is that kids have always been involved in deliberate and malicious harrassment. One of the changes is that adults now object to it. In 1965 if kids pushed crap through the door of a Pakistani or a Jamaican, well, "it's just kids isn't it".

The changes that have taken place are about our attitudes to this behaviour. I don't think we should condone it at all, but we need to be thinking about what it is we are punishing."

This sounds awfully "Daily Mail" reader, but . . . the "it's just kids, isn't it?" response is exactly what you get nowadays . . . a local paper a year or so back featured a story about two young teenagers who had stolen a motorbike and were riding it around an estate, targeting people from the local old folks home. They went into a tree and one (or both) of them were killed.

Not a pleasant story, but a number of the responses were on the grounds that this was "high spirits" and the fact that young children and elderly people were being put seriously at risk by people old enough to understand the dangers was ignored in press reports.

When I were a lad (said the old curmudgeon) if I'd pushed crap through *anyone's" letter box my dad would have belted me. I can't help thinking that it's a change for the *better* that parents, teachers, and police can't, nowadays, "give the young hooligans a clip round the ear" (it's always a "clip round the ear" rather than "beating them up" or, in some quarters, putting a bullet through the kneecap). But one of the problems with the ASBO is that it's bureaucratic and long-winded rather than having the immediate effect of giving people a taste of their own medicine. We've had, perhaps, to become more legalistic with respect to punishment. My worry about ASBOs is partly that I'm not convinced that they are working because the people involved are not caught early enough.

8:34 AM  
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