Monday, 19 November 2007

Criminalising kids: questions about risk and respect It may be that the story about the delinquent Brooklyn sidewalk-chalker could be trumped in England. According to this BBC report yesterday, children in this country have been arrested (unh, arrested?) for: drawing hopscotch on a pavement taking a slice of cucumber from a sandwich and throwing it at another child, and damaging a tree while building a den. Not perhaps in the same league, but we've also had the heinous disgrace of flip-flopped feet on seats. Meanwhile, the risk aversion debate has received significant renewed momentum from publicity following Tim Gill's No fear, published recently. (Various links currently on the Gulbenkian home page). And some energy is being coordinated in the US with Playborhood. Questioning risk aversion was a rumbling cross-departmental sub-theme in Whitehall in the early years of the Labour administration at the end of the nineties, but it didn't stick. Maybe the urge to control took over, and anyway the culture is highly resilient, resisting some passionate challenging, eg What are we scared of? And yes I do accept the importance of recognising, as the Health and Safety Executive put it, that the term is shorthand for 'excessive risk aversion.' It seems as if there are two trends in tension here, with two related themes - risk and respect - but I'm not clear how they are related. On the one hand we have attempts to program most risk out of children's lives (which is profoundly disempowering, and means that many seem to grow up expecting and accepting disempowerment as what society does to them). But measured exploration of risk can be stimulating and creates bonds: games and sport, still occasionally practised in some quarters (although very much subject to risk averse policies) offer semi-formal arenas in which such exploration can be played out. And on the other hand, we have created neighbourhood contexts in which learning the give-and-take and cheek-by-jowl rubbing-along of socialising, getting along with people you might not necessarily choose as friends, is structurally minimised. And we have overseen a degree of family disintegration so that many young people can avoid having more than the most minimal contact with older people, and the separated generations are often bewildered by each other. Result, a crisis of respect. On its own, transforming the design of neighbourhoods won't cure this combination, it seems to be a deep cultural problem. I was having a conversation the other day with a teacher who was telling me how depressing it is to have to try and deal with young people when they relentlessly swear and spit (in the classroom or corridor, this is, when in conversation with a teacher). It's unambiguously disrespectful behaviour, which must have some basis in the sense of not being cared about or valued. How does that square with a society which appears obsessed with protecting its children from risk? I think it's partly because systematised risk aversion is in conflict with notions of genuine caring, it reflects self-interested detachment that says - children are too...

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