Young offenders should be shown "a lot more love" in an effort to encourage good behaviour, Conservative leader David Cameron has said.
David Cameron said ministers were "reacting" to crime
He called for a more understanding approach as to why youths committed crimes in the first place.
They must have counselling, education and training, he told the Youth Justice Board's annual convention in Cardiff.
But Home Office minister Tony McNulty claimed Mr Cameron was using "fluffy bunny language", lacking any substance.
The Tory leader suggested that children should receive "tough love" and, in turn, have "high standards" asked of them.
This was not the same as "sentimental, childish love which sees no wrong in anyone", he added.
Handing out anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) to young people or putting them in custody was "reacting" to crime, not "reducing" it, Mr Cameron said, and many institutions had become "social dustbins".
"A few months ago I gave a speech about youth crime to the Centre for Social Justice.
"I talked about hoodies - and Tony Blair made a joke about it in his party conference speech.
"With that cheap joke he gave up on one of the best things he ever said: 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'."
The lives of many young people in inner cities were a "disgrace to all of us", Mr Cameron claimed, and more "rigorous and challenging community punishments" were needed.
He said crime was influenced by a growing gap between the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood.
"We're making childhood - the time of innocence - end earlier and earlier. We advertise products to pre-teens as if they were fully sexualised adults.
"We encourage them to listen to music that glorifies violence. We collude in the natural childish wish to grow up as quickly as possible."
However, the responsibilities of adulthood came later and later because there was less social pressure to marry, and for young men to look after their children, he said.
Mr Cameron said there was "little incentive" to save, and that "owning your own home is a distant, if not impossible, prospect".
"For many young people, childhood is over by age 12 - if not before. But adulthood doesn't begin till age 25 - if not later," he added.
But Mr McNulty claimed Mr Cameron had "a gimmick and he's looking for another vehicle to put that gimmick on, which isn't terribly mature".
"When you look in substance behind the fluffy bunny language there's not much there," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.
"He talks about the voluntary sector having a larger role. The voluntary sector has never had a larger role than they have over the last 10 years and are working alongside and in partnership with the state.
"He says he wants a more powerful society and then... he doesn't understand where the state fits in," Mr McNulty added.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell called Mr Cameron's comments a "trite, almost Woman's Own way of dealing with" youth crime.