Thursday, 29 October 2009

Failure is only the opposite of success (and thoughts on neglect)

I would like to present a "reverse" technique for trying to understand what causes (youth) violence and how best to prevent it.

This technique is derived from one of my most cherished beliefs: that we are all (BAME and WAME…) born as 'evil' as eachother, but some of us are lucky enough to be taught (actively and passively) to overcome our 'evil' tendencies, and are lucky enough to exist in a sufficiently privileged situation where we never feel our only option is to use ‘evil’ strategies to secure our personal safety or income.

I figured that if we could describe what positive things create a physical/emotional/incentive framework that basically eliminates the natural tendency towards youth violence, we could try describing the causes of youth violence as being the opposite or absence of those positive things. We could then view the spread of state and charity organisations as simply attempting to provide the missing services to children who don't get them at home! I should even be able to map these items to state and 3rd sector services (and even find some that are missing from state services).

As part of this analysis I thought it would be interesting to ask myself why I personally did NOT engage in any serious violence as a child or teenager. During this meditation, I jotted down bullet points of what a 'good carer' provides for their children (this is probably a compliment to my parents by I’d never admit it…).

I say 'carer' very deliberately in order to include and celebrate step-parents, mentors, adopters and any other adult bringing up a child, whether as a single adult or a couple, married or not. Whoever the hell you are, as long as you provide all these things, the kid in your charge is seriously unlikely to end up in trouble!

[ I am deliberately side-stepping the single-mums/absent fathers debate for this post so you don’t get distracted! I will talk about this hot topic in its own right later.. And another caveat: I am not saying that a child missing any of the items on this list is doomed to eternal violent offending – I am just trying to describe a complete framework that most effectively eliminates it. ]

In the end I was surprised by the length and significance of this list. For a carer to provide all this requires enormous and increasingly rare levels of self-sacrifice, dedication, tolerance, and income (in that order!!). So here goes – I’ve left it mainly as a list – analysing every point would render the blog unreadable:

What an effective carer provides:

· Physical safety (protection). This is a crucial point. If the child feels that his carers cannot keep him safe in the house, he will find ways to spend as much time outside the house as possible.
And if he is in danger outside at play or on the way to/from school, (and worse if he also feels the police can't or won't keep him safe), he will automatically seek to protect himself in some other way - typically safety in numbers, defensive equipment of some sort, and overt aggression to deter any potential attackers. Look at the markings on caterpillars that serve to warn off predators... an aggressive swagger and clothing associated with 'being dangerous' is a viable self-defence mechanism. (See my post on ‘fear’ at ).

· Supervision. A child who knows he is not being checked on will be silly, period. They're silly even when they are checked on. My boy and his mate recently decided to wee in a box and put the box in his clothes drawer, despite regular checkups... imagine if they weren’t being checked on at all. This becomes more sinister when they start to experiment with explicit and violent media, booze, drugs, sex, weapons, gangs and so on. An unsupervised child is a lost soul.
Linked to supervision is the concept of early detection. An effective carer will look for and spot early signs of unhappiness, conflict, or disengagement. In doing so the carer stands a chance of helping the child share their issues and advising them on a solution before it is too late.

· Education. In the wider sense – not only the school curriculum (but of course helping with homework and learning is absolutely vital, to the point where I think schools presuppose that this is happening and so the absence of it is damaging). This is a huge topic but can be broadly described as teaching everything else about life that schools don't - which I could categorise into knowledge or personal skills. Knowledge could include including family planning and personal finance, skills could include avoiding conflict, influencing, etc. I'll explore a few vital skills below: emotional literacy, self-calming, peaceful conflict resolution and social protocol.

· Emotional literacy. This is a buzzword that basically means the child can recognise and distinguish between different types of (mostly negative) emotions. This is crucial because without this skill the child typically turns any negative experience (frustration, humiliation, embarrassment, sadness etc) into anger and onwards into violence. Learning the different types allows him to then key into different self-calming mechanisms he learns with the help of his carer.

· Peaceful conflict resolution. Well it doesn't get more relevant than this does it. Just the thought of this raises my pulse, as I flashback to the last few days of prizing my two young half-term kids from eachother's throats because one wouldn't share or the other one was provoking them or on and on. This for a parent is the utterly depressing and life sapping reality of child-rearing. But this is the front line. All kids come into the world only knowing the fist as a mechanism for who gets what. Alpha male nature show business. Only by a (so far 7 years and counting) grind of multi-daily examples and taught alternatives do they learn to empathise, trade, negotiate, boobytrap, swindle and do other vile but ultimately non-violent things to resolve conflicts. Lord of the flies. This is it folks!

· Social protocol. Sorry couldn't think of a better word. Basically the carer teaches (excplicitly and by example) how the child should behave around others in the social/demographic group that the CARER intends or expects the child to live and interact in. This either means that the positive carer 'brainwashes' the child to behave in a way that is acceptable and expected in , say, Cambridge University and the Department of Children Schools and Families - where the carer hopes the child will end up. .. or it means the carer brainwashes the child to be loud, bigoted, aggressive, violent, racist, and other lovely things because that carer knows that anything other than this behaviour set will be rejected by the childs peers and seniors and ultimately his work colleagues. OR it means the carer doesn't give a stuff where the kid ends up, but just wants the kid not to make the carer look a fool in front of the carer's peers. Anyway the point is that social mobility is not just a function of access to money and good schools - it is a function of what the carer teaches the child to aim for and crucially how the carer teaches the child to behave around others. I believe classism or tribalism is far more prevalent than racism in employment discrimination terms, but that race can often be used as a lazy proxy for a social class. Just as often it is the spoken accent by the way. OK lets move on.

· Incentive structures. Something to gain, something to lose. A child who has neither will fall into despair and bitterness, and will have no reason to resist negative pressures. Study yourself: most of the things you do or refrain from doing are driven by external social and financial incentives (and occasionally by internal values which also serve as an incentive i.e. the avoidance of internal feelings of guilt/shame). I very much doubt that the reason you don’t smack your irritating work colleague in the teeth is because it is illegal.
The effective carer will build an intricate web of external promises and threats that will help guide a child through life, and also shape the child’s internal values that will go on to serve as an internalised incentive set.
This topic also covers ‘discipline’, it being one of the negative incentives on offer. See next.

· Fair discipline in the context of caring. I chose those words carefully. Physical punishment need not be a damaging experience for a child if the child knows that it is a last resort, that the carer does not like doing it and doesn't want to do it ever again, and that it is because the carer is worried about the child's future so badly that they are resorting to it, because all else has failed. And, of course, that it is not physically or mentally damaging. This of course implies that all else HAS been tried and failed…and is one of the most hotly debated issues.

· Diversion. Another crucial topic. Endless debate rages about insufficient activities for kids. But I think this is actually a proxy for the real problem: insufficient activities delivered by carers. Put simply if (big IF) the carer is financially able, and has enough time, to personally find, suggest, encourage, finance, and accompany the child to various positive pro-social activities…the child will not ever be bored, understimulated, lonely, unsupervised or kicking about on the street. And he will never need a youth club.
This of course requires the carer to unselfishly give up various things they would enjoy themselves, in order to benefit the child. Call me old-fashioned but this is the essence of parenting isn’t it?

· Reinforcement and celebration of independent positive thinking: the absolutely crucial ability the child must develop to allow friends / close colleagues/peers to make stupid dangerous decisions without the child getting involved or 'following' them. The ability to stay on your straight track when those around you derail. The effective carer gives the child the skills and self-confidence to do this, and sets up the incentive structure to give the child something to lose by getting drawn in / something to gain by walking away!

· Encouragement and celebration of positive achievement - building true self-esteem / confidence, and reinforcing the love of learning and achievement

· Structure / Routine - especially sleep discipline, school homework time, good eating habits, personal hygiene - but also indirectly teaching the child to accept and thrive in a disciplined and structured environment without railing against authority (without this skill, staying in school or holding down a 'proper job' is not easy). Many carers are ineffective simply because their own routine is awful and so the kid doesn’t stand a chance.

· Employment advantage – really important this one: assistance in finding and applying for vacancies, in particular providing contacts and personal recommendations to get you that first job. I wonder what percentage of the employed got their first break in this way as opposed to a cold application? hmmm

· A positive role model - This is all about 'cognitive' learning i.e. learning by example not by explicit teaching. There are too many aspects to list here but things like: showing how to handle disagreement in a non-aggressive way; respecting and having a relationship with (hopefully only one) woman; being scrupulously honest; respecting authority; spending money wisely; balancing work vs. leisure; and putting children's needs ahead of your own needs.
For the record this is not the meaning of ‘role model’ that most people refer to – which is typically an extremely high earner. I’m talking about a life skills role model.

· Unconditional love and care - building feelings of self-worth, and teaching by example how to love and care tolerantly for others even when they are driving you mad. The unconditional bit is important because it encourages a child to tell his carers the truth, confide in them and seek their advice on difficult situations.

· Sympathy and understanding - an ear to bash / a shoulder to cry on, enabling and coaching the child to progress through negative emotions of hurt, humiliation, frustration, anger and hatred – to a calmer more rational state – and ultimately on to states like acceptance, forgiveness or reconciliation.

· Support and 'backup' of the child and the school in the context of his schooling - i.e. working with the school and child to resolve difficult situations, This means the carer protects their child from possible discrimination/abuse/bullying by the school or other pupils. But it also means being reprimanded by the carer for unacceptable behaviour in the school on the other hand. Without this crucial engagement and advocacy role, the child is quite simply halfway to exclusion.

· Food and drink. Seems a bit obvious but certainly judging by my own bratz, they very often are horribly agitated and aggressive towards eachother until they have a wholesome and natural hot meal.

I say again: even a child getting most or all of this list could still conceivably become violent - other factors could conceivably rise up, combine and overshadow all this. But I firmly believe that a child raised with all of the above is the least likely to become embroiled in sustained, serious violence.

I need the success stories!
Getting back to the positive message, I intend to find some of the millions of very disadvantaged but non-violent young boys who live in the worst estates and attend bad schools, preferably black, preferably with a single mum, who have kept their noses clean and come out of school approximately sane and content and with some qualifications. I want to interview the families and ask the carer what their winning formula was, and look to see what other services the boy was also getting from the state and the third sector – if any.
But this is harder than it sounds – I recently asked some professionals in youth intervention (state and third sector) to put me in touch with some of these success stories…but they of course both said “sorry we don’t know any of those!”.

Get in touch with me if you can hook me up!

Wilful neglect or emotional disability?
I could even go so far as saying that any carer who genuinely could, but out of selfishness does not, provide these ‘services’ to their child, is neglecting their child as badly as if they were not washing or feeding them (which is probably happening too).
I deliberately say ‘out of selfishness’ to distinguish the idea of a selfish/self-centred neglectful carer from the one who is not delivering the goods due to their own financial or emotional handicaps or due to a lack of skills/advice/experience/support.

This notion of a carer ‘choosing’ to put their own needs above those of their kids typically triggers feelings of revulsion in ‘normal’ folks, and triggers urges to punish them somehow, to make them ‘change their evil ways’. Call me naive but I hang on to the belief that no parent or carer who has experienced a carer’s love and support could deprive their child of it unless some fundamental issues were preventing them from delivering it themselves.

In some cases I suspect that not being able to provide for your child must feel so abjectly awful that you ultimately distance yourself from the child to protect your own brutal feelings of shame and guilt. I have this nagging feeling, for example, that there is a link between impoverished unemployed black fathers abandoning the family and that father’s feeling of uselessness at not being able to secure a decent future for the family (see a later post I will write on the wider effects of historical overt racism in the UK, gulp). There will be myriad other reasons but I’ve never seen anyone offer this one up (apologies to any psychologists and advocates of ‘Post Traumatic Slave Disorder/Syndrome’ - Google it – who have made this case before me)

In the same way as I think all babies are born as evil (or innocent) as eachother, I also think that a carer’s ability and actions are shaped primarily by nurture, not nature. Hence the horror of the perpetual cycle of abuse, which I will live and die trying to break.

Blame-gaming is ultimately unconstructive: a stranger, or the state, criticising an outwardly self-centred parent will achieve nothing other than causing them to further disengage from the civilised society that they feel is persecuting them. In the end I think only personal aspiration, cultural influence, and education/skill building (as opposed to threat of legal sanction) can make a carer put their child’s needs ahead of their own desires.


  1. Fabulous. Thanks for sharing your insights and passing on gravely important facts about good parenting. Some we all need reminding, even if our kids are doing OK.

  2. A good example of gross neglect, seemingly assisted by drink and drugs.

    A common theme in neglect stories is how kids turn into responsible carers when the parent fails - this is heart wrenching and beautiful at the same time:
    "An attempt had been made by the four-year-old girl to feed the baby after the children used dining room chairs to climb up to a kitchen cupboard and reach a tin of milk powder."