Restrictions to aid parenting

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, explains the curfew plans

From agony columnists to solemn psychotherapists there is no shortage public advice in the newspapers about adult personal relationships, but with what is often the product of those relationships - the children - the silence is overwhelming.

Parenting has survived the increasing openness of the past three decades to remain an essentially private matter. There are volumes aplenty on babies. But as children develop into social beings so the book list shrinks.

Despite this most parents manage very well. Some, however, do not. We know that there has been a dramatic four-fold increase in the number of primary age children facing exclusion. In many schools behaviour is the major challenge for teachers, governors and parents.

Since in our culture norms of parenting are private it is sometimes the children who establish a common standard of behaviour among the selves.

How many parents have wilted under the claim of "but so-and-sos parents let him/her stay out until late"?

In the consultation paper of Youth Justice, which we published a fortnight ago, we proposed much greater emphasis on education for parenting. There is good practice around the country but too little is given the publicity it deserves. This is odd, since our society has long insisted that parents' ''rights'' should be tempered by children's rights enforced by the community. For example, children have a right to education and parents a duty to see that their children turn up at school on time.

Of course, we have to avoid being too prescriptive. But I know of no one who thinks that the interests of children aged 10 and under served if they are out in the street unsupervised at 11 at night and if such behaviour does not serve their interest (and can certainly disrupt the local community) the next question is what to do about it.

One idea which we are currently considering is that local authorities, with the agreement of the police and after consultation with residents, should be able with by-laws to enforce curfews restricting children 10 and under from being out unsupervised in the street late at night.

A key element in this approach is that it would be local. The very process by which sullen and frustrated complaints were turned into positive debate about basic standards of behaviour in an area might of itself lead to much better agreement among parents, teachers and police about young people's behaviour and for example the time that children of a certain age should be home.

These local debates might well identify the need in the youth service, in after-school clubs, and in parenting education. Local agreement might then emerge that the enforcement of curfew by-laws should be a last resort when these other measures had failed to work by themselves.

Will this approach work? No one can say for certain until it is tried - and we welcome views about it. But little might be lost and a great deal gained by some properly monitored pilot schemes.

Children have civil liberties too and parents responsibilities. Doing nothing means taking liberties with many children's futures.

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