Children are not born evil. They can be made evil by what happens to them. Last week, widespread shock has been in evidence again at the news that two boys, aged 10 and 11, have tried to kill two other boys, aged nine and 11. Many have argued that this episode is further evidence of feral children and of young lives out of control.
The lesson widely drawn has been that the standard of behaviour of young people has deteriorated steadily, and that we now have a "crisis of youth". Indeed, a whole range of grisly episodes, starting with the James Bulger episode in 1993, when two 10-year-olds murdered a two-year-old child, have followed in swift succession and have led many to wonder what has gone wrong.
My own experience as a schoolteacher is that nothing has gone wrong and that children are in many ways better behaved and more sensitive than they were a generation ago.
My colleague Andy Schofield, principal-elect of The Wellington Academy, Wiltshire, agreed. "It's utter rubbish to say that children are getting worse," he said. "They are more tolerant, less prejudiced, harder working and more conscious of the environment than children 25 years ago."
It is certainly true that the high-profile, horrific cases of children's crimes have been highly publicised in the media, which relishes what goes wrong. It is the behaviour and principles of the media at large that have declined over the past 25 years: I do not think the same is true of the behaviour or principles of children.
In this newspaper today, there are moving accounts given by several children who have often led painful lives, but who have shown courage and resolve. Take Francisco Augusto, for example. He attended the same school as Damilola Taylor, and was befriended by him. Some months later, Damilola was the child left by four youths to bleed to death in a stairwell in North Peckham, south London. Subsequently, Francisco fell in with the wrong crowd and by the age of 13 he was excluded from school after a stabbing incident. Life went further downhill for him, but he then met a youth worker who began to change his life. "Now I talk to other kids in gangs and try to help them. If they're going through problems, hopefully they can learn from my own experiences," he said.
There are hundreds of thousands of children like Francisco across the country who want to help others, and who give up their time freely to do so. For every bully, shoplifter and vandal there are a hundred who care for other children, who are involved in looking after the environment, and who are involved in church, mosque and other worthy organisations.
When children behave badly, the blame is primarily due to their home environment. Time and time again as a teacher I see how children's behaviour and attitude mirror those of their parents. Where parents are appreciative, thoughtful and caring, so too will their children be. Where parents are suspicious, angry and fearful, is it a surprise that their children are the same? These parents, of course, will not see it that way. Any attempt to point out their failings meets a defensive response. I have long thought that "parent classes" would be valuable, but I suspect that only the good parents would attend.
When children misbehave, they commonly do so because they feel unloved or undervalued. One can see from the home background of some children from the earliest ages that they will have a high chance of turning out to be drug addicts, alienated, depressed, or indeed criminals. Parents must bear the heaviest burden of responsibility for how their children are.
Schooling is far less important in creating a child's character. By the time they arrive at school at the age of three or four, the personality will have been substantially formed, and it will continue to be reinforced by the norms in the home when the child is not at school. The media has played an increasing role in shaping behaviour of the young, as ease of access to disturbing and violent images on screen and page has become much more readily available over the past 15 years.
It is no surprise that the killers of James Bulger – Jon Venables and Robert Thompson – were acting out a scene from Child's Play, a 1991 horror movie they had seen the week before.
Does it mean that some children are doomed by their circumstances? And what, then, can be done to give all children a better chance?
A good home is utterly critical. Nothing can take the place of a loving and supportive home, which has very defined rules, with right and wrong clearly delineated. Parents should not be afraid of saying no, and of correcting their children when they cross the line – as all children will try to do.
Schools should do even more to teach good morals and behaviour. Civility can be learnt, and where it is not at home, it must be at school. Resilience and self-control can also be taught to children, as must well-being (the core lesson of which is that if a child wants to feel good, it must do good).
Children like and need to know where they stand yet society is often afraid to tell them. The past six months has shown us that banks and the free-market cannot be trusted to get it right on their own: neither can the media. Difficult though it is to patrol, those films, programmes and magazines which are constructive and offer hope and peaceful ways forward should somehow be given greater space than those which are full of violence, hate and negativity.
Children are our future. Most of the time, they are quite remarkable. Where they are not, it is adults who are to blame. Children are not born evil. They can be made evil by what happens to them.
Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington CollegeReuse content