Parental attitudes have changed since my childhood days.
Back then, in the 1940s and 1950s, a child accused of bad behaviour was almost automatically presumed to be guilty, by parents and teachers alike. Children then were neither enfranchised, nor entitled to legal representation, and there were no courts of appeal. Parents and teachers were in league with each other, in some kind of disciplinary bund, with the sole objective of keeping children in their place. I suppose it was an extension of the Victorian maxim that children should be seen but not heard.
Miscarriages of justice were frequent, but parents set against crimes that went undetected – that is, those occasions when the miscreant had ‘got away with it’. As my parents often observed, with a shrug of the shoulders, whenever I complained that I was being unfairly treated, or had been accused of something that someone else had done, “That’s the way life is. Sometimes you get caught, sometimes you don’t. You may have been innocent this time, and punished unfairly, but think all about the times you got away with it. It all evens up in the end.”
Unfairness, in short, was one of life’s valuable lessons.
Those times are gone, apparently, and many will say good riddance. Others mourn their passing. I am not among them, but even this liberal post-modernist sometimes gasps in wonder on reading about parents who take the side of their children whenever a school tries to impose some kind of order on its pupils – sorry, students. These often involve the mode of dress to school, or the use of mobile telephones, or examples of anti-social behaviour. These are hardly capital crimes, of course, but the wider implications for parenthood are clear.
All this occurred to me when I read about a case, which has received widespread attention in the media, of a middle-aged and disabled woman who was pelted with flour and eggs by five boys aged between fifteen and seventeen as she sat on a park bench. One of them was about to celebrate his sixteenth birthday with a party. The prospect of this being cancelled seems to have animated his mother rather more than the crime. “We can’t say anything about what went on over the weekend (why not, one may ask?) but my son’s name has been leaked over the internet and we’ve had threats. I’ve reported the abuse to the police and we are now under their protection. If anyone comes to our home to cause problems, we have a number we can call, which will get the police here right away.” So far, her appeal sounds like the natural fear of a mother concerned for her family’s safety. But here’s the kicker. She adds: “This isn’t what we need. It’s my son’s sixteenth birthday and we’ve got family here for his party.”
Not a word of sympathy, you will have noted, for the victim of the attack. Not a word of condemnation of it. Not a scintilla of contrition for her boy’s criminality or cowardice – just a plea that his birthday party should take place as if nothing untoward had happened to affect it.
To be fair, the father of one of the other boys marched his son to the police station to confess what he had done. That is precisely what my father would have done – after dispensing a measure of justice of his own.
Only once in my childhood do I remember my parents taking my side for an act of violence, or any other act. When I was ten or eleven, I was bullied at school by a boy named Jones, older than me by two years. His favourite trick was to engage me in conversation before pushing me over an accomplice who was crouching behind me. On this occasion, one of many, I lost my temper and punched Jones in the nose, causing him to bleed profusely. It was this act of retribution that was witnessed by a teacher, and I was sent home with a note excoriating me for my behaviour.
My mother was mortified. My father, though, for once, took issue with the teacher. “If the boy was provoked in that manner he was right to respond.” A return note said as much, with the result that I was vilified by the teacher for months on end as a trouble-maker with hooliganistic tendencies. I might add, as a postscript, that Jones, after recovering from my blow, responded in kind, and by the time I got home, my shirt was covered with blood. But Jones never bothered me again, indeed avoided me at all times.
I remember the incident vividly because at all other times my parents held me responsible for any offence, regardless of the quality of the case that I presented for the defence.
I have no idea when or why the pendulum of justice swung in favour of children, or whether children are more violent or wayward than my generation was, but the evidence is plain to see. And the acts seem to be increasing in cruelty to the point of outright sadism. I read about them all the time and they are almost invariably accompanied by the plaintive cry: “My little Johnny’s a good boy, and I’m sure he meant no harm.”
Well, little Johnny is not a good boy and harm was exactly what he enjoyed inflicting.
The law has its remedies, of course, but I can’t help thinking – at the risk of sounding like a spare-the-rod-spoil-the child Victorian myself, that parental anger, and perhaps a measure of shame, would be a good place to start.