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89 JUNE 2006
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Children and Adults

Mark Smith

I think I should go and lie in a darkened room. I found myself, this month, doing something I rarely do; I agreed with the leader of the Tory Party. The Tories are historically the right wing of British politics and my default position is to disagree with them. But David Cameron, their new leader came away with one of the best sound-bites I’ve heard from a politician in years when he said something to the effect that “we live in a society that treats adults like children and children like adults.” Hard though I might try I can’t disagree with that. In respect of work with children and youth, we've lost any proper perspective on what it is to be a child or an adult. The two become confused in a politically correct ideological mish-mash, the consequences of which are all around us; this month has also seen a rise to record levels of teenage pregnancies and the usual bout of hand-wringing that goes with it, bemoaning either a decline in moral standards or a lack of effective sex education, neither of which positions gets to the heart of the matter.

Part of the problem for me stems from a children's rights agenda that is superficial and ill-thought through. Now I know as a Child and Youth Care professional, and an academic to boot, I’m meant to say hoorah things about children's rights, but practically, morally and intellectually I find it difficult to support the rights agenda as it has emerged over the past couple of decades. It has led to an inappropriate “adulterising” of kids. Alongside their premature elevation to adult roles we at the same time “responsibilise” them (these are terms used by Barry Goldson, a writer on youth offending). We fail to treat them as kids and when they don’t behave as the little adults we want them to be, we say that they have to live with the consequences of behaving in childlike ways – and we lock up more and more of them and subject others to a whole host of new punitive measures. That’s the down side of the rights agenda – alongside rights come responsibilities and when kids fail to meet these they end up facing the consequences – and the only right we afford them is the right to due process as they progress through the criminal justice or other systems. The real rights that we should be ensuring for kids is the right for them to enter into relationships with caring adults that are mutually respectful and where there is an understanding that adults in caring roles sometimes have to say and do things that kids don’t like.

But in today’s climate we seem unable to provide that right. Because while we empower kids inappropriately we simultaneously infantilise adults who work with them. I know from my own practice that I was at my best when I was confident in what I was doing and secure in the knowledge that what I was doing was in the best interests of the kids I was working with. And sometimes that involved doing things that breached kids “rights”. I remember one case where I took money from a 14 year old boy – money he had come across though prostituting himself. I didn’t take a moralistic position – his or anyone’s sexuality didn’t bother me one way or the other – but I couldn’t bring myself, as one in a caring role, to condone his coming back to the home I ran thinking it was OK to sell himself. In caring, there are messages that you have to give out. Not everyone might agree. My decision to take this money led me into conflict with the children's rights officer and client complaints officer both of whom took the view that it was the boy’s money and I had no right to take it from him. That to me is a distorted view of the care relationship and one that, at the time, I challenged and ultimately ignored.

But challenging such views became harder in my latter years in practice. The balance of power shifted from those of us who worked directly with kids to those who wanted to pursue various abstract agendas about children's rights and how best to care for and control kids. It was the triumph of ideology over experience. “Young people tell us ...” seemed to be the way into this debate, which in actual fact wasn’t a debate at all, for the “young people tell us” mantra was calculated to stifle rather than foster debate. Those of us who have worked with kids for any length of time know that young people tell us all sorts of things that need to be filtered, made sense of and negotiated – and that ultimately there are times that our job as adults is to say, “I hear what you’re saying but we’re going to do this my way anyway.” That is what caring involves; that is what being an adult involves. For this to work, however, requires that adults are sufficiently confident to be able to take such stances and to feel they will be supported in seeing them through. Paradoxically, the more confident and empowered adults feel, the better they are able to listen to and respect children and to take their views into account. When adults don’t feel empowered, when they know that ultimate authority lies outside the care relationship and they know that kids know this too, they are tentative, they stop believing that they can effect change, they become negative and prey to the sort of victim mentality that is never far away in residential child care; they stop behaving as the strong authoritative adults that kids need and respect.

And when adults can’t be adults, then kids move in to fill this vacuum – long before they’re ready.

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