Page last updated at 01:00 GMT, Monday, 17 November 2008

Are we negative about our children?

As charity Barnardo's prepares to launch an advertising campaign warning that society is demonising children, BBC social policy correspondent Kim Catcheside considers the growing gap between young and old in UK society.

Hooded youths
Young people are often blamed for society's ills by their elders

"What is happening to our children? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets."

A quote from the Telegraph newspaper in 2008?

No, that quote is attributed to the philosopher Plato, born more than 400 years before Christ.

Let's try another.

"The manners of children are deteriorating... the child of today is coarser more vulgar... than his parents were."

A leader from the Daily Mail in 2008?

No, that was CG Heathcote, the stipendiary magistrate for Brighton in 1898, giving evidence to an inquiry on juvenile delinquency.

CG Heathcote is quoted by the criminologist Geoffrey Pearson, the author of the influential book, Hooligan.

The real crime is that this sort of talk and attitude does nothing to help those young people who are difficult, unruly or badly behaved
Martin Narey, Barnardo's

Geoffrey Pearson argues that society is in the habit of succumbing to moral panics about the youth of the day, while looking back to a "golden age" of respect and discipline.

In his book he tracks what he calls these "respectable fears" back almost two hundred years. But as the quote from Plato suggests, they probably predate that.

Curfew call

Given the chance to be negative about children and young people, the UK public in 2008 generally seizes the opportunity.

This summer, YouGov asked almost 2,000 adults if they thought children should be subject to a curfew.

Three quarters agreed to an 8pm curfew for those aged eight and under, and half thought children under 16 should be forced to stay at home after 9pm.

And three quarters of them agreed with the statement "most children these days have no boundaries and think they can do as they please".

So why does society have this view of children, and are its fears well founded?

Campaigners for the rights of children blame the media for whipping up hostility to children.

According to the chief executive of Barnardo's, Martin Narey, the British public overestimates the amount of crime committed by young people.

"The real crime is that this sort of talk and attitude does nothing to help those young people who are difficult, unruly or badly behaved," he says.

Crime statistics

But the statistics show that while negative attitudes to children may be exaggerated, they are based on fact.

In England and Wales, children aged 10 to 17 are far more likely to be arrested than adults.

The most recent figures show that they account for a quarter of all arrests. Children and young people under 21 account for two thirds of arrests.

In Scotland, the peak age for offending is between 17 and 20, and the levels of knife crime are more than three times higher than in England and Wales.

The homicide rate for 10 to 29-year-olds is more than five times that in England and Wales.

David Fraser, a former senior probation officer and author of Land Fit For Criminals, says there is a "very big youth crime problem in this country" and that government "is in denial about it", with about 300,000 crimes committed by children under 16 every year.

While the figures tell us that children over 10 are more likely to be arrested than adults, they also suggest that fear of the young is exaggerated.

Fewer than 3% of 10 to 17-year-olds are in the criminal justice system in England and Wales, and a tiny minority of them are in custody.

Lack of contact

Studies were conducted in 2004 and 2006 by the Scottish Centre for Social Research into the factors that lie behind negative attitudes towards children.

More than 1,500 adults over 18 were questioned - almost two thirds agreed that the behaviour of young people was worse than in the past.

And more than two thirds believed children were committing more crime than a decade ago.

But the study reveals a worrying gap between perception and reality.

Most of the adults questioned thought that problems associated with youth crime, such as vandalism and drink-fuelled anti social behaviour, were common in their areas. But far fewer had been directly affected by these crimes.

If we are getting told we are bad all the time, then we will just do something to be bad
Demi, Birmingham teenager

Very few of those who took part in the survey had regular contact with children.

And surprise surprise, those who had the least contact with children were the most likely to have negative views about them.

These findings have serious consequences for the whole of the UK, where the population is aging.

'Reinforce stereotypes'

In western, urban societies like ours, different generations are becoming more isolated from each other. Once, older men in the workforce would be responsible for shepherding apprentices of 14 and 15.

Now many retire in their 50s and longer full time education keeps the young segregated with their peers into their 20s.

Perhaps our view of the young has more to say about how cohesive we are as a society than the behaviour of children.

Simon Anderson, of the Scottish Centre for Social Research, warns that our poor attitude to the young is dangerous.

"Negative attitudes to the young may not reflect reality but they help to constitute the problem because they reinforce negative stereotypes which in turn increases the distance between the generations."

Perhaps the last word should go to Demi, a 15-year-old from a deprived part of Birmingham.

"If we are getting told we are bad all the time, then we will just do something to be bad," she said.

"There's no point in getting the blame for something unless you've actually done it."

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SEE ALSO
Hobby to hook youths from crime
19 Oct 08 |  England
Youth Crime: Key measures
15 Jul 08 |  UK
Youth crime team 'unsatisfactory'
14 Jan 08 |  South West Wales
Youth crime 'falls by a quarter'
20 Sep 07 |  Tayside and Central

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