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CYC-Online 64 MAY 2004
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Families and playing in the traffic

Here are some hot debate-quality issues if ever there were any. Popping up like mushrooms around the world are “curfews" areas where kids are not allowed to be out at night. The times specified and the age ranges may vary as each local authority jumps on the bandwagon, but the upshot is that if young people are on the streets of the town at the wrong age and/or the wrong time the police, in their big black boots, will step in. In most cases, the worst that the police will do is take the children home, unless they are breaking some other law at the same time.

Enter left, the civil liberties brigade in their own (probably variously coloured but eminently sensible) big boots. How dare the local authorities set policemen on small children just because they want to go outside? What is the country coming to? Soon we will have to put our hands up and ask permission to use the toilet. This is authoritarianism going too far. Our kids are living in a police state.

Down the road a shopping mall plays its own card. From another news report this week: “The second-largest mall in (a certain state), plans to prohibit all patrons ages 17 and younger from entering its center after 5 p.m. daily unless they're accompanied by an adult 21 or older. The ban goes into effect June 1 and is part of a nationwide trend of curfews for kids at shopping malls." That'll take care of them.

Same plot, different characters
Yet another news report this week tells of young skateboarders who risk life and limb as they zip and zoom in and out of rush-hour traffic to avoid the police who will arrest them or fine them for skateboarding in public spaces ... and when these kids approached city hall to ask whether skateboarding parks might be built, the town fathers replied that they could not do that because they had been warned by “advocates” that the youngsters “might get hurt". One can see the litigating lawyers already lining up in that enticing contretemps.

Then, so help me, on page 6 there is a report on some group home which (outrageously) refused to allow a youth to go out somewhere one day and the staff (of this 'Dickensian institution') are being taken to task for “imprisoning” the kid and denying him his basic human rights ("fundamental” rights is the more intimidating term used today, which rights, incidentally, are never “violated” any more but always “grossly violated"). And then, damn me, on page 7 we read of another group home youth who committed some delinquency in a neighbouring suburb, and (you guessed) – why did the group home let him out? Wasn’t it their duty to maintain responsibility and keep him in sight? What do we pay these group homes and staff for anyway?!"

You gotta love all these people, and deep therapy belly laughing (DTBL) would seem the best way to handle all this “if it weren't, grossly and fundamentally, so tragic. In this story so far we seem to have blamed everybody in town except that small protective, insulating, supportive, nurturing band of human beings which every kid needs clustering around – their families. And, of course, “blamed” is not exactly the right word. Neither is “family”. But it’s getting there.

We increasingly believe that laws and procedures can achieve all necessary upbringing tasks. Kids play truant; we imprison their mothers. We put signs up which say “Silence” and rush out to penalise “Noise”. “This is a smoke-free zone” or “No bullying” are presumed to be good enough to ensure compliance – and good enough reasons to exclude children who don’t measure up. But back at the ranch, who is teaching these principles, and these attitudes and behaviours? And who is allowing growing kids the space, necessary for all learning, to experiment and make mistakes?

The blanket phrase “blaming parents” is not fair, though in a percentage of cases (you pick the number you think is right) it is appropriate. What is fair is to say that the role of the family is increasingly being neglected and its responsibilities abrogated to “someone else” in our town or our society. Increasingly, children are interacting – too early and unprepared – directly with the state, with authorities, with the organs of law and order. And youth as a whole has been effectively cut loose from the rest of humanity and it floats, unguided and unwelcome, into others' waters who, in turn, shoo it off to go and play somewhere else.

It is accepted that back-up teams who help with the kids are necessary throughout human society, and so baby-sitters, child care services, mentors, youth clubs, activity groups, sports teams, after-school programs, churches ... all help in this role. But they help as back-ups to families, not to replace families, however the families might be constituted. It is with the families that the focus of all such agencies must lie – and not least of Child and Youth Care agencies. All of the back-up services should be pointed at families, aimed at families, handed back to families, often reconciled with families, always aligned to families.

What we have at the moment is too many people shouting the odds at services who are allegedly not running other people's families satisfactorily “while our families should really be doing this themselves. If they cannot, it is acknowledged that they need help and support to learn how; if they can, they should be held accountable.

I liked the story of the kid who complained to his parents that he was suffering from AD. “Surely you mean ADHD?” they asked. “No,” he replied. “I mean AD “attention deficit!” And if (so they say) “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood”, then maybe it’s not too late to jump-start a family which is getting rusty and running out of gas. One additional human grouping in any given neighbourhood which starts once more to behave like a family is progress ... a little more connectedness and mutual support, a little more attention and affection, a little more talking and listening ... and, boy, is this stuff contageous! Next thing you know, the folks next door will also start to behave strangely, and so on.

There will be families who can manage their own within-family curfews, thank you. Mom or Dad or both might well become the “older than 21 adults” who can take their kids to the mall after 5pm! We may be able to put the occasional policeman and civil liberties busybody out of work, free them up to coach soccer or mentor some youth.

So that the families can get back to work again.

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