We have such confused attitudes to our children

We are led to believe that anything less than perfect behaviour shows we are bringing up the devil's spawn
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There is no doubt that there are some extraordinarily contradictory attitudes to children drifting around in our culture. When the dreadful news was first announced that 150 children's graves in a Bristol cemetery had been vandalised, the question on everyone's lips was: "What kind of people would commit such a crime, and for what possible reason?"

There is no doubt that there are some extraordinarily contradictory attitudes to children drifting around in our culture. When the dreadful news was first announced that 150 children's graves in a Bristol cemetery had been vandalised, the question on everyone's lips was: "What kind of people would commit such a crime, and for what possible reason?"

Now we know that the kind of people who would commit such a crime are the kind of people who are below the age of criminal responsibility, which in this country is set at the early age of 10. The kind of people who did commit such a crime were the kind of people who didn't understand exactly what it was they were doing.

What a relief this information should be. An act that seemed senseless, was senseless. No one deliberately set out to desecrate the memories of dead children, and to rub salt in the desperately tender wounds of bereaved parents. No one despises his own humanity and the humanity of others quite enough, or quite so indiscriminately, to be so calculatedly cruel.

This dreadful episode is not a new benchmark for a society that is growing sicker, one that does, to its shame, wake up some mornings to find that Jewish graves have been vandalised, or the memorial stone for a murdered black teenager spat on. This crime, unlike those crimes of hate, was not carried out in order to send a dark and dreadful message. It was an isolated incident that saw two boys being destructive (which children unhappily often are).

Instead of being reassured by this, though, people are furious about it. One woman who spoke to the press, wished that the children had been older, so that they could be punished properly. She completely failed to grasp that there's every reason to believe that had the boys been older, then they would never have done such a thing.

It's quite a paradox. The very people who are appalled by a crime against the innocence of dead children, refuse to consider the possibility of living children being innocent themselves. Indeed, worry about reprisals against these boys is such that the police are not even releasing their ages, in case this leads to their being identified and targeted by vigilantes.

Which is damned annoying, because I'm very keen to know more details of this case. I think certain disclosures would be in the public interest, because it seems like time for us to understand that children aren't either "little angels or little devils", as Childline recently put it, but complicated little packages that can contain elements of both, absolutely simultaneously.

Some people, notably Ludovic Kennedy, were against the killers of James Bulger being given new identities, because it would prevent the public from knowing details of their adult progress that could do much to persuade people of the efficacy of rehabilitation. On a much smaller scale, I feel the same about this incident.

All we do know about these two boys is that their parents did exactly the right thing in this appalling situation. They saw their children on CCTV footage, confronted them, established the truth and took them to the police. The parents are devastated that their sons have done such a thing, and have apologised to all those families whose tributes were disturbed.

I can certainly identify with their misery. How terrible it must have been to see those images and recognise your own flesh and blood cycling into view as a prime suspect. What agonies the parents must still be going through.

Are the parents of these boys now thinking that their beloved lads might be pathological? Or berating themselves as failed parents who must have done things that were very, very, wrong? Are they trying to persuade themselves that they should curse the other child, hopeful that however badly their own son has behaved, such a thing would never have occurred without the bad influence of the other one? Or do they remain convinced that their children are essentially all right, and that with discipline and love they can put the whole thing behind them?

All these may be very different reactions. But the awful thing is that there's every possibility that any of them could be the right one. There is the parent's dilemma. So many choices. So much at stake. What a nightmare to have to negotiate such a minefield in the light of the knowledge that your child's misdemeanor is one that makes national news because it is so unbelievably shocking.

It is hard for parents to be sanguine about the bad behaviour of their children at the best of times. More and more we are led to believe that anything less than perfect behaviour is an indication that we are bringing up the devil's spawn. Desecrating graves is exactly the sort of activity that one would expect from such fantastically evil progeny, so it is not surprising that the events of the past few days have attracted a note of hysteria.

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, is keen on the idea that the bad behaviour of three-year-olds can mark them as likely to face a criminal future, and suggests that vigilance – or is that vigilanteism – from nursery teachers could flush out future trouble-makers. And this is a prevailing opinion, fanned by the reports of recidivist criminal kids who cannot be touched by the police, and anarchistic schoolchildren whose presence scuppers the education of an entire class.

The result is a hardening of the brutal idea of the inherent badness of children, who must be identified, punished and given no quarter. When the story of Bristol's desecrated cemetery first appeared, the early indications – with the boys being described as teenage yobs – were that this was a story which confirmed those prejudices. But the youth of the protagonists, the prompt honesty of the parents, and their all-too-understandable shock and horror, are all little details which mount up to suggest that it might instead be a powerful challenge to that prevailing stereotype instead.

It would be oddly comforting to know that these are well-adjusted seven-year-olds, from loving homes with glowing school reports, caught in a moment of hysterical madness that started with some minor, naughty, mocking of a toy that seemed to be put in an inappropriate place, and grew into a frenzy of childish incomprehension and tantrum.

This might, instead of fanning it, help to calm the storm of fear that has grown up about criminal children running wild, unschooled, untouched by the law, heading for a life of mayhem. Instead it is already being assumed that these are troublesome nine-year-olds with a string of similar crimes behind them, whose parents despair of the law's inability to intervene, and don't know quite where else to turn. Maybe that is the situation – but if it is then it's old news, a situation we're all too familiar with already.

As it is, we simply do not know the whole story, and what it might be telling us. Therefore, it is destined to turn into a kind of modern legend, an acme of under-age wickedness, unpunished by a police-force restrained by do-gooding. In the process we forget that children have always been cruel, selfish and lacking in impulse control, and that learning not to behave in those ways is part of growing up. Nowadays, any child who fails to be an angel of innocence has automatically fallen all the way to hell.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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