On the eve of a conference organised by the Seventh Day Adventist Church into parenting and last summer’s riots, the Lambeth Weekender asked professor Gus John: are families to blame for what children do?
Lambeth Weekender: What impact did parenting have on the 2011 England riots?
Professor Gus John: This is a very broad and complex question and it needs to be much more nuanced. When do parents cease to have direct responsibility for their children’s conduct? At what age are children thought to be criminally responsible? How many young people below the age of 16 were involved in the riots? It seems to me that there are questions about parental responsibility in respect of children who were involved in the mayhem on the streets and who would not ordinarily be seen as old enough to be home alone.
There is a much wider question about whether or not some parents routinely let their young people who live at home go and come as they please and at whatever hour they please, without bothering to find out where their children are or who they are with. I do not have the statistics at hand, but there were many young people arrested for involvement in the mayhem who do not fit that profile but found themselves on the streets out of curiosity or because they saw an opportunity to get back at the police.
The broader question of why so many young (and older people of diverse ethnic backgrounds) clearly were not acting with moral purpose on those nights is one that concerns more than just parents. Young people acquire values and use them as a compass for their public and private conduct from parents, schools, the media, the conduct of public leaders and politicians, films and popular culture, etc. The majority of those taking part in the disturbances were from urban working class families, but not all.
The question as parental responsibility was not posed at all, or not put in quite the same way during the disturbances that accompanied the student fees protests. Was that because the majority of those protesting and confronting the police were white and middle class? Is parental failure deemed to be responsible for the widespread fraud committed by MPs in the recent expenses scandal, or the high level white collar crimes that are committed in this country every day, much of which goes unreported?
LW: Do you think young people are able to fall into crime and get involved with gangs because their parents are not active enough?
GJ: Some parents lose control of their children at too early an age and fail to exert parental authority and discipline. Some need support in parenting adolescents, boys in particular. Parents generally and black parents in particular, on account of the threats and challenges their children (boys especially) face, should make a point of getting to know the parents of their children’s friends and at the very least establishing the kind of contact that would enable them to guide and support one another’s children and monitor their conduct and progress. They should encourage their talk and share their experiences and fears with them at an early age and create the environment where that could persist into adolescence and adulthood.
In that way, children would be more willing to express their anxieties and concerns about their peers’ propensities and conduct and enable sensitive interventions by parents to guide, support and rescue children. What tends to happen within some families, single parent households or not, is that parents and children live in separate silos, with parents not knowing what or who their children are interested in, how well they cope with peer group pressures, the values their friends and their friends’ parents subscribe to, or the activities that go on in their homes.
There is little point in turning up at funerals in our hundreds and weeping with them that mourn the senseless deaths of young people at one another’s hands, if we don’t take those simple steps and make them define how we function as communities in order to keep our children and living purposeful lives despite the disproportionate challenges they face.
Among those children is the blanket stereotyping and hasty condemnation of young people black boys in particular, that schools indulge in. I chair a charitable organisation called the Communities Empowerment Network that operates out of offices in Shakespeare Road in Brixton and deals principally with school exclusions and parents advocacy.
Increasingly, we deal with cases where schools exclude boys from an early age for behaviour ‘that is part of gang culture’ or ‘that imports the violence of the streets into the school’. But when you examine what the child is alleged to have done, you find that it is the kind of boisterous or thoughtless behaviour that has been going on in schools for years, especially influenced by particular television programmes and such like. What is worse, whereas before those misdemeanours would have been dealt with by the middle or senior managers of the school routinely, nowadays it is the police stationed at the school that are left to deal with them.
So, from an early age, young people encounter the police in their school even before they stop and search them on the street. Some people have the fanciful notion that that police presence in schools would socialise children into loving the police more and being less resentful of them when they encounter them policing the community and targeting black boys.
LW: What do council need to do? More services? More sports for children and teens?
GJ: Councils need to be more proactive in NOT engaging in the engulfing moral panic about and blanketing stereotyping of ‘black youth’ or ‘black boys’ as an undifferentiated mass. They need to acknowledge and valorise the majority of black youths who have and want no involvement in youth violence or gang activity and who live in constant fear of same. They need to acknowledge and celebrate those young men and women who, having been involved in serious street violence or/and gang activity have successfully extricated themselves from that lifestyle and are turning their lives around. They need to acknowledge that there are very many more young people who could do the same with the right interventions from appropriately trained adults and from significant others in their community.
I act as a voluntary consultant to Options for Change, the Streatham based voluntary organisation and in that capacity worked with a group of young men with whom Donna Sinclair and her team ran a ‘reintegration’ programme. Those young men had been some traumatic experiences (including having the traumatic experience of traumatising victims). Despite predictions some agencies made about what was likely to happen to them and those working with them if those young men were brought together as a group, they stayed the course and graduated at a truly uplifting and inspirational award ceremony at Middlesex University a few weeks ago.
Councils need to acknowledge that schools do not generally assist young people in dealing with the self management and self discipline challenges that beset them. ‘Zero Tolerance’ policies, especially on the part of Academies and an increasing number of other schools, means that young people are not given the guidance and support they need to unlearn inappropriate behaviours and understand that they are responsible for what they do, irrespective of how others, or ‘the system’ might make them feel.
There was a time when young people could receive social education in informal and non-formal settings from suitably trained youth workers (detached, club, neighbourhood or school based), that had on emphasis on self management, growing self confidence and self esteem, group work, team work, development of insight and appreciation of how your actions impact upon others or upon your community (emotional intelligence), anger management, conflict resolution, etc. That is not now to be found in any meaningful way in any school, irrespective of the evident needs of individual students. Rather, the emphasis is on examination grades and on making sure that every student is focused enough to guarantee the school a place high up in the league tables. But, those two agenda are not incompatible.
Indeed, in order to ensure that ‘No child is left behind’ and that ‘Every child matters’, it is necessary to do the former in order that every child could achieve those high grades and also be well adjusted and responsible social beings.
With the current trend in education policy and schooling practices, which in my view is all arse about face, it is inevitable that there would be many more casualties among black young people, with yet another generation of black young men having their life chances ruined from a very early age. That is why a Lambeth Black Families Forum is so crucial and why it is essential that it sets itself a bold and radical agenda that is appropriate to the urgent and deteriorating situation in which too many of our children, our boys in particular, are learning to survive.
Picture (Home): “Riot cops” by solomonsmfield (Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)