Tony Sewell: The grown-ups need to grow up who must grow up Children need grown-up adults

To rebel against the world, you need some sort of order to kick against


I used to be an inner-city school teacher in the same area where three teenagers were shot recently. I became disillusioned, which can easily happen. Certainly, if the press is to be believed, Britain's streets are breeding the most vicious, disrespectful, morally comatose generation our nation has ever seen.

Yet beneath the hoodies and the Burberry, there is another side to these brazen young individuals who strut the streets drinking, fighting and shooting one another. After a spell in academe, I realised that my real mission in life was to try to create real opportunities for boys who looked like me. I knew that most black boys were extremely intelligent. So two years ago I set up a charity called Generating Genius, which encourages black boys with potential and have them aspire to the scientific professions.

What so many of these boys lacked were high expectations, challenge and a disciplined environment. They are held back by many factors, but what they have in common is that they are all the offspring of adults who do not want to grow up. My generation, born in the early 1960s and later, was the last one to be caned at school and belted at home. Whether it did us good or harm, we swore that when we had children, we would never be so brutal. We wanted our children to be our friends. Instead of giving the little brats a bloody good telling off, we just sat there and listened.

Recently the novelist Tim Lott wrote: "At the heart, our children are as much a riotous, disrespectful, anti-establishment bunch of awkward cusses as the rest of us have always been. And I wouldn't have it any other way."

This is interesting. Here you have a middle-aged man who sees himself in his children. He admires the fact that British children have more attitude than many of their bland Euro-counterparts. In fact, he can see his own childhood replaying itself. But he's forgotten one thing. To rebel against the world, you need some sort of order or establishment to kick against. That was what parents were for. In the daily drama of family life, someone has to play the role of Dad, Mum and rebel child. The trouble is that today we have a whole bunch of adults wanting to play the rebel child. Tim Lott needs to grow up.

It is this liberal misunderstanding of youth rebellion which has led to many children feeling lost and isolated. How can you begin to respect an adult who defines your bad behaviour as "sceptical, knowing, bloody-minded and independent"? Maybe it is just bad behaviour.

Our children want us to be "grumpy old men, who never allow them out after midnight". Now that's how it has always been. We have had too big a diet of middle-class adults trying to "identify" with their children. Anyone laying down the law would be considered a dinosaur. In schools, the teachers that get up my nose are the so called "cool teachers", pathetic specimens trying to be like the children they teach. Although these are the minority, they are still an example of adults abdicating their responsibility.

Last week's report by Unicef, which compared childhoods across 21 OECD countries, found that our children are the most miserable, fat, lonely and frightened, compared with the other developed countries in the study. One of the major problems is a lack of sympathetic adults, whether they are role models or just sounding boards. We need a return of the aunts and uncles we had in the past. These people were not even blood relatives but they were so supportive that we called them Auntie and Uncle. But fear drives everything on this issue. Many potential significant adults refuse to get involved in their own families. This is because our communities have become fractured; no one can visit without an appointment and everyone claims they are just too busy.

I truly believe that quality "uncle-ing" is a dying art that should be reintroduced to the curriculum of life. The fear of children may be the biggest reason why we see aunts and uncles only when our sons are sweet babies but they disappear when that boy is nearly six foot, his voice has just broken and he has an attitude.

It was MP Diane Abbott in 2002 who caused a row when she said that white women teachers are failing black schoolboys because they are frightened of them. Bad behaviour, she said, goes unchallenged from an early age because staff unfamiliar with black culture are physically intimidated by black children. This, she argues, allows problems to escalate to a stage where the child risks being excluded.

What is clear is that in many of our poor-performing comprehensive schools, the teachers are barricaded in the staff room, scared of going out and laying the law down to the children. It is not surprising that that in one survey students said their favourite teachers were the ones who had the most discipline. They never really liked these teachers but they felt secure; they knew that they would learn and they knew that these teachers were also secure in behaving like horrible adults.

And fear is at the root of the vast alcohol problem, highlighted in today's Independent on Sunday. Thousands of children are having to be treated for alcohol poisoning, liver disease or drink-related mental and behavioural disorders. There were more than 8,600 such hospital admissions of under-18s in 2005-06, the highest since records began and a 37 per cent rise on five years ago.

Of course, the aggressive marketing by the drinks industry doesn't help, but our Cool Britannia government is frightened of being accused of spoiling the party. Just as Maggie Thatcher was accused of taking away the milk from our children, New Labour doesn't want to be labelled the government that took away the alcopops from our youth.

It is a strange world we live in, where adults and children dress the same, have the same electronic gadgets and watch the same reality TV. We live in an ever youthful culture where getting old is seen to be sad and undignified. Those of us who are middle-aged are no better than a reformed Eighties band, looking to squeeze one more hit out of our ageing bones.

We need to retire from that infantile stage, unashamedly put on those bed-slippers and show children some leadership.

Tony Sewell is director of the charity Generating Genius

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently  

Shia LaBeouf to Luis Suárez: Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015