CHILDREN and young people, stereotyped and scapegoated, are always an easy target for society's anger, bewilderment and despair. Mass hysteria is dangerous because it usurps sense and sensibility. Mourning the tragic death of James Bulger and condemning the children accused of killing him, the nation ignores the 90-plus toddlers who die unsung each year at the hands of parents or care-takers. As Geraldine Bedell and her ilk leap on the bandwagon of childbashing with wild talk of 'little emperors' (21 February), nobody notices her blind refusal to distinguish picking up a newborn baby when it cries from letting a three-year-old do anything it pleases; her determined avoidance of everything we know about infant development and socialisation.

Beware the crescendo of demands for tougher discipline and the flogger's sub-text, lest they drown out the mass of evidence that children's experience of inter-personal violence in their own home is a root cause of all violence in society. Australia's National Committee on Violence states that 'the greatest chance we have to prevent violence in society is to raise children who reject violence as a method of problem-solving . . .' The Council of Europe's committee of ministers on reducing family violence indicts '. . . the very assumption that corporal punishment of children is legitimate . . .' Germany will shortly be the sixth European nation to ban all physical punishment of children. If this Government wants 'better discipline', let it honour its commitment, through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to protect our children from 'all forms of mental and physical violence'.

The only worthwhile discipline is self-discipline. Children don't acquire that from punishment but from 'do as you would be done by' messages from loved adults. Children need parent-figures to model, explain and reciprocate desirable behaviour and provide secure limits that keep them safe and socially acceptable while they learn to keep themselves safe and respect other people. The Home Secretary's plans for secure units for a handful of 12-15 year olds - totally discredited by old experience - must not blind us to the decimation of family-support networks and children's services, the sacking of experienced teachers because younger ones are cheaper, the closing of youth clubs and the dearth of youth training places. Who should we 'condemn more and understand less'?

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