Leading article: The kids are all right

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The Independent Online

It was ever thus. People over the age of 21 have tended since the beginning of recorded history to be disgusted and a little bit frightened by the standards of behaviour among the youth. What may be different today is the intensity with which children are demonised by the media. How often do you see positive images of teenagers in newspapers or on television? As Rod Morgan, head of the Youth Justice Board, tells The Independent on Sunday, children are too often treated as if they bore the "mark of Cain".

This tendency is to be deplored. Not only is it unfair on the vast majority of children, who are in reality better informed and more socially aware than they have ever been, but it is damaging to society more generally if old ladies are fearful of all children in public spaces, and if adults assume the worst of any youthful stranger.

Unfortunately, it is a tendency that is reinforced by some Government policies. The impulse behind anti-social behaviour orders is a good one, but the effect of the policy in practice can be counter-productive. The policy is part of a pattern. While the number of children coming to the attention of the police has remained constant over the past decade, the number ending up in court has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished.

There was a fuss earlier this month about a 10-year-old boy in court for some playground name-calling. It is an extreme case, but indicative. Mr Morgan speaks of the scenario in which a boy breaks a window but, when the child owns up and offers to pay, the police say they have no discretion and refer for prosecution.

Bernard Hare writes of the danger of a criminal justice system and a cultural norm that regard children as problems to be controlled and punished rather than as developing citizens to be nurtured. His is not a plea for the soft touch, but a call to listen to children themselves - to promote respect by giving respect.

And a plea to listen to those, such as he and Mr Morgan, who have some experience of what works in encouraging "social behaviour" - as much as in clamping down on the anti-social.