The horror of seeing my son being attacked in front of me

Children aren't born violent but are changed by what they experience. What a pity adults don't learn the lesson
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IT IS every parent's most cherished illusion and it never survives contact with the world beyond our homes: the belief that somehow we can protect our children from those who would do them harm. I cannot understand why I clung to that belief for so long. After all, I had seen enough of the harm done to children in the world, ample evidence of murder and torture and rape and abandonment. But until this week, I suspect, I had been rather lucky in my own life. Not that I have any great crime or drama to report, just an ordinary story of boys in a playground that ended with a little blood and a lot of tears.

I had taken my son out to play on one of those beautiful late spring evenings earlier this week. It's a small playground, and we know most of the neighbourhood children. The mums and dads stand around and chat while their offspring tumble and swing and slide. Occasionally there is a howl of pain as some child falls from a climbing frame or trips while chasing a football: minor accidents soon cured with soft words. There has never been - when I've been there, at least - any sign of violence. Until this week.

The only other kid in the playground was being looked after by his teenage sister. He was about three years old, the same age as my son. At first he and my son seemed to be playing together happily. Hide and seek, running and chasing.

And then, as they were running towards the swings, the other boy turned around, grabbed my son and wrestled him to the ground. He then started to batter his face with one hand while holding his head down on the ground with the other. This was not playground rough and tumble. There was something vicious in the kid's expression as he set about my son. I was shocked but responded immediately, acting upon some primal urge I suppose, grabbing the youngster and hauling him off.

I screamed something at him, I can't quite remember what. Words of rage that stunned him. The boy's teenage sister arrived and pulled him away. My three-year-old lay on the ground with his lip bleeding and a bump swelling up on his face.

He was - as you might imagine - crying hysterically. My son had never witnessed real-life violence. There is no slapping in our house, and we do our best to filter out the worst excesses of children's television. However, here was my child shaking in my arms, bewildered at the sudden and unprovoked violence that had descended on him. When he did speak, later at home after the application of Savlon and a slice of cake, it was only to say: "Thanks for rescuing me, Dad." However, I did not feel that I had rescued him. Quite the opposite, in fact. I had failed to protect him from that first, inevitable encounter with aggressive violence.

Later he asked me why the other child had attacked him. There was a lot I could have said but, remembering that he was three years old and pre- rational, I just opted for the "he's silly and he didn't really mean it" line. It did the trick, but my son would not go to sleep until very late that night. And when he woke up he wondered again about why he had been attacked. What would I have said to him if he had been older? Would I tell him that the world is a frightening place at times and that there are people who will do you harm given half a chance? Or might I instead tell him to become tough and to prepare to meet the challengers who will rise up in playgrounds, schoolyards, playing fields and boardrooms for the rest of his life?

I don't know the true answer to my boy's question. But I suspect the little bully's behaviour was an imitation of some adult in his life. I remember my own first serious encounter with a bully. I was 10 years old and had just started at a new school. It was in a strange city and I had a strange accent. I also bore the stigma of having come from a fee-paying institution to this state-funded school. And so, on my first day, a big oaf named Larkin decided to test my mettle.

Larkin came from the country and had fists the size of hams. I remember that his hair always stood on end in the morning and that he was always the first in the queue for the free soup and brown bread that the headmaster doled out at lunch time. Beyond a certain low cunning he seemed a fairly dim character, destined for a life of toil on some unforgiving piece of ground in the west of Ireland.

On that first morning I had just taken my place in the class when Larkin turned around and asked if I was "handy". I didn't know it at the time, but "handy" meant a useful fighter. Assuming that he was being friendly I answered that I was indeed "handy". What a mistake. It didn't take long for Larkin and his pals to realise I was anything but "handy". I didn't run away from the fights but I never won. It got painful fighting losing battles, and so I developed an alternative strategy: use cunning to stay one step ahead of them, duck and dive and stay out of their way, use your intelligence to flatter the fools or your wit to put them down. And never cry. If you cried the hyena instinct was awakened, and the bastards would never let you alone.

There were two really, really bad bastards. Boys you avoided like the plague. They had a look in their eyes that said: "I am capable of anything, just try me." One day they filled a plastic bag full of piss - several boys were forced to contribute - and poured it over the head of a quiet, sensitive boy who had refused to steal cigarettes for them. They then beat him up for good measure.

The quiet kid went home and, unusually for those days, told his mother. The following day she arrived at the school, marched into the class and pointed out the two villains to the headmaster. They were dragged out and thrashed in front of the woman. It was a savage beating and there were tears and cries. Afterwards the two were expelled from the school.

I always felt like getting sick when I watched people being beaten up or being beaten by the headmaster. It was two sides of the same coin: the stronger beating the daylights out of the weaker.

There were a lot of kids in that school who had no defence: neither the physical strength nor the mental cunning to defeat the bullies. And boy, they suffered. They were kids who never offered anybody a minute's harm in their lives. Maybe they stuttered or wore strange clothes or looked funny in some way; maybe they had National Health glasses or buck teeth. Most groups of children have their way of identifying victims - the hyena instinct again. However, the bullies made the leap between recognition of a victim to persecution.

And why? The same why that made a kid attack my son in the playground. It is painfully simple: the strong will turn on the weak if that is the lesson they learn at home or at school. The culture of physical violence is leaving our schools, but it thrives in too many homes. Too many parents believe that to strike and hit is healthy. What madness. Big people hit little people. Those little people hit other weaker people. And so it goes on.

I cannot prove that the boy who attacked my son (a) witnessed violence in his home or (b) was subjected to violence by somebody older. But I would bet that one of the two is a very strong possibility. Children are not born brutal or violent. They are turned into these things by what they see and experience. It is as true in London as it is in Kosovo or in the corridors of Columbine High. What a pity the adults are not learning the lesson.

The writer is a BBC News special correspondent