We're too sentimental about children

'Maybe in our consumer society, we simply value new stuff more than old, even new human beings over old ones'
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The Independent Online

The British have long been noted for their funny attitudes to children, summed up no better than in a couple of proverbs designed to counter the impulses of indulgent parents. "Spare the rod and spoil the child", and "Children should be seen and not heard" are once-commonplace orthodoxies that we now recoil at the thought of. But while we may make many of the right noises now, it sometimes can seem that our underlying attitudes are still just as messed up.

The British have long been noted for their funny attitudes to children, summed up no better than in a couple of proverbs designed to counter the impulses of indulgent parents. "Spare the rod and spoil the child", and "Children should be seen and not heard" are once-commonplace orthodoxies that we now recoil at the thought of. But while we may make many of the right noises now, it sometimes can seem that our underlying attitudes are still just as messed up.

Instead of dehumanising children, we sentimentalise them, and sometimes it can appear that each attitude has a similar result. No stronger feelings are stirred up in the hearts of the British public than when the innocence of childhood is defiled.

Pre-Budget announcements in this election year promise that Gordon Brown will return to the firm and righteous ground of his children's crusade. A total of £3bn will be pledged to help families, and raise a further one million children out of poverty in the course of Labour's next term. In the coming weeks, an advertising campaign will alert us all to the hard-headed generosities of the children's tax credit. The campaign should play well for New Labour in the run-up to the election, and go some way towards securing that second term, and all without denting the party coffers.

And so, all being well in this wealthy, privileged land, we will be able, in five years' time, to hold our heads high in the certain knowledge that a mere two million children remain below the poverty line. It is hardly New Labour's fault that such an ambition speaks of a country that does not, as a matter of course, care for its children. The voters may reject the Tory promise of a tax cut for the sake of the children. But they certainly won't be voting for a tax hike to hurry along New Labour's dream of a nation free of such shameful statistics.

Mr Brown knows that our sentiment about children is powerful. But he knows, too, that it is shallow, too shallow to harbour too much logic. So far, it goes, and no further. How could he not know this? Again and again we holler our heads off about some new outrage against children, only to have somehow lost interest further down the line when the damage of our ill-considered yells becomes apparent.

Last week we were united in lavishly whipped-up revulsion against Alder Hey, and indeed all hospitals. Again and again, in reports about Alder Hey, it was emphasised that these were not adult organs - as if adult organs had adult abilities to fend for themselves - but children's organs - as if these organs were in themselves repositories of innocence.

But all that was really being acknowledged in this slavish differentiation is that a child's life is valued more than an adult's life, even though the most singularly amazing aspect of real-life children is how very much like the adults they will become they are from the very beginning. Maybe in our consumer society we simply value new stuff more than old stuff, even new humans over old. Certainly, government policy is not the only indicator that suggests this to be the case.

Of course children are precious, to a large extent still unspoilt by the world they live in. But it is practical adults that protect them, not sentimental ones. For confirmation of this, look no further than the latest development in the Alder Hey story. Organ donation has dried up after the hullabaloo around Alder Hey, and children who desperately need organ transplants are now in danger of not getting them. Death by popular sentiment. Death by populist government spin.

And what about the story that dominated the tabloid headlines before Alder Hey took over? The dastardly Kilshaws with their own extraordinary attitudes towards children are proof in themselves of some very weird attitudes. But the aspect of the story that is really damaging to children was the routine pillorying of the natural mother of the twins that the Kilshaws adopted (or, maybe, abducted). Tranda Wecker was considered a "heartless mother" and the sentimental reaction was repulsion at her actions.

But doesn't this kind of knee-jerk condemnation make it all the more difficult for a pregnant woman with real worries about whether she can cope with a baby to make the choice that might be best - adoption? Because, again, of our sentimental projections of what motherhood and childhood ought to be, a few more children may languish in the care of parents who cannot cope, before the council moves in and adoption procedures start. Again, hearts rule heads, and people are sent the signal that they will be admired for being sentimental, and reviled for being practical.

When it comes to the unspeakable, deliberate, violent crimes against children, the spiral of counter-productivity can be even more horrific. At the weekend, Gloria Taylor made an appeal for the parents shielding the killers of her son, Damilola, to hand them over to the police. God knows it is easy to understand why this 10-year-old's parents want to see his murderers brought to justice. God knows as well what a dangerous and terrible course the people/parents protecting these violent and disturbed teenagers have chosen to take.

It is possible that these parents are way beyond morality themselves. But it is also possible that these parents might be better disposed to handing their children over to a judicial system that would help to rehabilitate their seemingly monstrous progeny (probably among those millions of children who have lived their short lives in poverty), and release them quietly after a fair debt had been paid.

And indeed, as the Bulger case has proven, that is exactly what the criminal justice system would do. Except that the climate is not one that is supportive of such a course. All mercy shown to these killers will be sneered at. The public will be stirred up by the popular press to demand nothing less than lynching for these children, who will forever become objects of hate and personifications of evil. No parent wants that for their child, no matter how terrible the crime.

Again, practical means of dealing with that rare creature, a child killer, are eschewed in favour of sentiment turned nasty, and the demand that for these children there can be no compassion. And so justice itself is made a mockery of, in our rush to protect the innocent and condemn the guilty.

These bloodthirsty cries for vengeance protect adult killers as well as children. Again this weekend, there was a suggestion conveyed to the parents of Sarah Payne, that a man may be arrested for the murder of their daughter. The weekend ended with no charge made. While it is possible, it is by no means likely that this killer has evaded arrest so far without the collusion of others.

Could it be that the 10-day festival of sentiment, during which pop stars talked on the television to Sarah, and thousands of people reassured her parents that they too felt that Sarah was alive, has played its part in protecting this murderer, by whipping up public sentiment to a hysterical degree? Could it be that the News of the World's naming and shaming, and the scenes of civil unrest that followed the chance discovery of her body, have actually served to protect this person also? None of these steps was practical. None of them helped. They were all illogical, ranging from sentimental to frenzied. Such behaviour from adults never, ever helps children.

Occasionally, indeed, this frenzied rush to judgement might offer killers the ultimate protection - another person being convicted for their crime. From the time Michael Stone was charged with the killing of Megan and Lin Russell, people who are expert in dealing with miscarriages of justice have argued for his innocence.

Now he has been granted leave to appeal, on grounds of DNA evidence as well as non-disclosure of evidence. These grounds must be persuasive for the appeal to have been granted in the first place. If they are enough to overturn his conviction, there will be no more room for sentiment, or for the failure of logic that it necessarily induces. But there will be room for a cool assessment of how it can be that our desire to protect the innocent just keeps on backfiring.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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