Why can't we do the right thing by our children? children?Girls and boys go out to play, maim and murder

'Teenagers' used to be invisible, swallowed up by the mines, apprentice ships or the forces. Now they're on the streets with nothing to do, and we can't cope. Locking them up or hiding them away is not the answer, says Stewart Dakers
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I don't know what Jack Straw, Michael Howard and the rest are on, but it sure isn't coming from the streets. Tagging, curfews, prime- time pre-Lottery floggings, the solutions of the punitive lobbies are staggering - not so much for their barbarity, which is substantial enough, but for their irrelevance; they simply are not real.

Anyone practising with young people at the sharp end, especially as we do on detached work, street work, on their turf, on their terms, anyone doing this knows that the problems are simply not being addressed; and there is one aspect which is quite central to this issue of young people - WE'VE NEVER HAD THEM BEFORE.

Teenage is an infant, and in this area of parenting, the family is a first-time parent who needs guidance, reassurance, support. Teenage has only existed as a life process, a situation, for about three generations. After all, childhood is hardly out of short trousers. Only 152 years ago, the Mines Act made it illegal for anyone under 10 to work underground. In the interval, anyone over 10 was fair game, until a series of Education Acts gradually removed teenagers from the labour market. At the same time, National Service ended, tertiary education exploded and apprenticeship declined. All have contributed to a massive increase in unoccupied teenagers, which in the past 15 years has been severely aggravated by youth unemployment. We truly are dealing with a new baby, a social novelty. For teenagers to be dependent on the family is culturally unprecedented, even biologically unnatural. It is to their credit that there has been so little bloodshed.

Teenage is a period of violent explosion and terrible vulnerability. That is how it is meant to be. Every hormone is on the boil, every paranoia about identity is in overdrive, and it needs activity, a sense of purpose, of function, of its own space, of its own individuality on its drive towards adulthood; and it needs clear ground rules against which to fashion its own identity.

And what we have organised for them is about as hostile an environment as could be devised. We have diverted parents into "career fulfilment", we have demolished extended families and destroyed communities, all those agents that supervised the ground rules and provided the infrastructure of attention, the absence of which is at the root of teenage fecklessness. We have removed skills from work activities, especially those traditionally undertaken by young men, and so erased the rich variety of functional options. Indeed, we have replaced constructive training of aptitudes with almost punitive exercises in civic housekeeping. We have substituted the trivial pursuits of work experience for hard graft. We have deregulated the market to render our young people easy pickings for the sophisticated traders in the pornography of consumerism. We have undermined the authority of all the functions, such as teaching, on which we rely as a society for the maintenance of standards. In their place, we have elected as role models men - and women - whose adherence to the basic decencies to which they exhort us are exemplarily derelict.

Perhaps most hostile of all, we are refining a value-free materialism, designed for convenience, driven by selfishness, powered by greed and steered towards recreational self-gratification. This is a toxic mix for the teenage appetite, and totally alien to the teenage spirit, which, though it can be the time of the whore and the warrior, is also the moment of the altruistic iconoclast.

And the architects of this toxic blandscape have the nerve to browbeat ordinary families for their failure to control the violence of teenager reaction to it.

But then the architects have no experience of it themselves. In general, they are men preoccupied with their own work who delegate the "kids" to the wife and continue to come from a class that has by tradition contracted out teenage care to boarding schools or nannies.

The street is where the authentic voice of youth can be heard. And there are, of course, thousands who are listening to it for hours on end. Youth, social and health promotion services are stacked with those who know about the teenage phenomenon; but we are predominantly female, and because we view our service as just that, not a fast track to punditry, our voices are not heard. But we handle the stuff every working hour and you can be sure we are right.

And we have the solutions; and they are simple solutions. Naturally they cost, but then with youth crime coming in at pounds 7bn a year, and pounds 2m as the going rate for an average "bad apple", investment in prevention can afford to be generous.

For the early years, Health Promotion Services need supplementing, to enable health visitors to focus on parenting as well as weights and measures; nursery education nationally; the re-establishment of teaching as a priority profession, with numbers proper to the job; the provision of classroom/workplace mix for the non-academic; the reintroduction of apprenticeship, enabling teenagers to become part of the adult world, and the discontinuation of Youth Initiatives which simply contain them resentfully in a youth world; the development of dry extensions, coffee bars; a greater emphasis on detached youth work in place of clubs. Perhaps most fundamental, a serious critical analysis of the diet of young people and the introduction of regulation for products containing hyperactivity agents.

These are pragmatic options, street solutions. They offer millennial opportunities, and if we are serious about the development of the generations that will set the tone for the next 1,000 years, we must reject the dinosaurs, for whom youth is a social irritant. And remember! The dinosaurs did once disappear overnight.

The writer is a youth worker on a housing estate in Surrey.

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