Through the eyes of a child

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The Independent Culture
THE REVELATION last week that two 12-year-old girls are to become mothers has fuelled a sense of moral panic. Even the "liberal press" has run articles arguing that the current behaviour of young people is proof that liberal values have almost destroyed our society. The Daily Mail is having a field day, running features every day about the girls who are 12 going on 20, and the boys from families on benefit who have had five lovers by the time they have reached 14.

And now Tony Blair has put the finishing touch to the furore; in an interview yesterday he said he was "appalled" by teenage pregnancy and called for "a new moral purpose" in Britain. He demanded that police and local authorities should clamp down on children's antisocial behaviour by imposing curfews to keep them off the streets at night.

The voices that are missing from this debate are those of the children themselves. Listening to them often makes us ask ourselves whether these outbreaks of moral outrage do anything but further alienate the children in question.

One teenage mother to whom I spoke yesterday, a young woman called Rachel who lives in London with her two-year-old son, said: "One of the hardest things to live with is other people's negative attitudes. All the time you're hearing that you've destroyed your life. I think I'm a good mother, and when my child is old enough I want to go out to work and support him. But right now I'm better employed at home, caring for him. It's tough when everyone, everyone in the media, all the politicians, are saying that what you're doing is worthless, that you're worthless."

Rachel knows that nobody else values the work she does looking after her child. She knows it because of the way she has to live. At first she lived in a hostel with her baby, "but that was such a bad place, he got pneumonia. Every day I'd ring the council asking for a place to live and nobody wanted to talk to me. Nobody wanted to listen."

Then she started living alone on benefits. "It's so tough - I mean, you can't buy fresh fruit or vegetables. You can't buy anything for yourself, and that's hard."

She feels that, far from being an irresponsible act, the moment she decided to keep her baby was the moment that she started to act responsibly. "I'd had a lot of problems as a child - I'd been in an adolescent unit. But when I decided to keep my baby, I thought, `I can take some control'."

She hates the way that young, single mothers are demonised. "I look around and all I see is women working really hard to bring up their children with no money. And everyone hates them."

Rather than being outraged at children's behaviour, maybe politicians and the press should start to feel outraged at the way our society treats disadvantaged families. One in three children in Britain lives in poverty. When we think what that means - that they have to struggle with bad housing, no resources for education or recreation, living in environments where there is nothing to do and nowhere to go - we should ask ourselves whether we are in a position to preach at them.

Two boys whom I spoke to yesterday were passionate about the problems of living in a disadvantaged community. Both Simon and Russell are 16; both are brought up by single mothers living on benefit. Both of them already feel alienated and demonised by the society in which they live. They are both constantly hassled by the police, even though their outraged innocence seems unfeigned, for behaviour such as sitting in a park in the evening. "The police searched us and sent us home," Simon tells me. "But they don't think, where are we to go? We can't sit in our parents' houses; there's no space. We can't go to clubs and things, because we don't have the money and anyway we're not allowed in till we're 18. So we sit in the park, and then we're seen as troublemakers."

Russell has been charged with possessing an offensive weapon because he had a penknife in his pocket. He is terrified about the effect that may have on his life. "I feel scared now when I see the police around. They just wanted to arrest me because I was there. I was an easy target."

These children know at first hand what it is to try to keep a sense of hope alive, even when there doesn't seem to be anything around for them. One of Simon's friends tried to do something simple to improve their quality of life. He set up a music club - somewhere where kids in the area could go to play their instruments together. "It was closed down by the police," Simon says heavily. "Now there's nowhere to go and there's nothing to do."

They are both still at college, but they are looking with a pessimistic eye at their futures. "We know all about the New Deal and all of that," says Simon. "We know that we'll have to work. But the only jobs around for us - they're not worthwhile. They're really bad jobs."

It's important to listen to voices like these, the voices of the children themselves, because only then can we understand the real challenge facing our society at the end of this troubled millennium. Not to turn back the clock and try to resuscitate outdated moral values; but to go forwards, and try to create a society where four million children don't have to struggle against odds stacked so hard against them that they can hardly move.

Tonight, the BBC will screen a timely documentary called Eyes of a Child. It is a disturbing film that may serve only to fuel the current moral panic with its depiction of the lives of some of the most disadvantaged children in Britain, who are struggling in a mire of drugs, violence and poverty. But it has revealing moments. Although many of the children are full of bravado, when they are asked what they would like the Prime Minister to do to change in their lives, all of them become suddenly serious and reflective. "Sort out the after-school," says one child sensibly. "There's nothing around here to do."

Others are more ambitious. "Poor children - make them not poor," says 11-year-old David, with a passionate directness.

This Government has, in the past, said that this is its goal. Tony Blair once said: "Our historic aim will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty... It is a 20-year mission." Gordon Brown has said, "It's not enough to tackle absolute poverty and simply prevent destitution. We should do more. It is not fair that children should be disadvantaged from the start of their lives." But do these men really believe what they say?

Gordon Brown's introduction of the working families' tax credit, which will be launched this week, is a step in the right direction, and he has been helped by falling unemployment. But the income of many families in work is still well below the poverty line, and that of families out of work is pitiful. Today, the Institute for Public Policy Research publishes a paper by David Piachaud called "Progress on Poverty", which assesses the Government's record on tackling poverty. It argues that although the steps that have been taken should get up to 800,000 children out of poverty by the end of this parliament, the real answer to is to begin the redistribution of wealth and to increase public expenditure.

If we listen to what children themselves are saying, we can hear that they are urgently asking for action. But their voices are often drowned out by a deluge of moral pontification. Instead of calling for child curfews, Blair should be instigating schemes that will make them feel part of society again. Instead of being appalled at their behaviour, he should ask himself whether the Government is giving them any other options.

And, instead of throwing up our hands in horror at the decline of kids' morality, perhaps we in the media and politics should ask ourselves whether we are setting a good example. The most useful moral lesson that we could give children would be to show that we care enough about their lives to give them not just lectures, but concrete help and resources.

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