What are YOU doing?

Observations on children

The nation's children have been in the headlines the past couple of weeks. First there was the gang of illustrious signatories to the letter in the Daily Telegraph (quickly followed by the Archbishop of Canterbury), excoriating the state of childhood for our technology-rich, attention-poor 21st-century young.

Then there was the Daily Mail, with its serialisation of Handle With Care, a report published by the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies, describing the "betrayal" by the state of children in care. The author, Harriet Sergeant, catalogued the shortcomings that led to these children failing educationally and often turning to drugs, crime and prostitution.

I for one am delighted that children are making news. With rates of childhood mental illness on a wretched upward curve, as the YoungMinds mental-health charity insistently points out, it is not before time. On the one hand, deprivation is shamefully high for such an affluent country, while on the other, children are either being stuffed to the gills with junk food or starving themselves to the newly fashionable size zero.

Yet, before we celebrate the Daily Mail's conversion to the cause of "betrayed" kids in care, we should remind ourselves that these are the same kids who are most likely to cause trouble - the very ones, in fact, that the Mail relentlessly reviles as hooligans, thugs and scum.

It's not just the Mail. The sudden concern with children highlights the common dichotomy between a sentimental view of them as having their childhood benignly destroyed by a society that is too pressurised and over-indulgent (important nuanced points expressed in the letter to the Telegraph got lost among the self-exculpatory outpourings by middle-class parent journalists) and the fear and distaste felt about those seen as feral hoodies making normal folks' lives hell.

And, to me, the headlines and oversimplified reporting are another form of child exploitation. It appears to be acting on their behalf but in fact disguises what our troubled and troublesome children badly need, which is for us to focus on who they are. That is, who they really are, and not what they are as a homogeneous mass lumped together to prove a trend, a political point, a philosophy.

Obviously parents are the first who should stop and take stock, where they are prime carers. But let's return to the children in care, who all too often will be moved a number of times and have very fractured parenting. They go wrong because they have no sense of their own worth.

So if we actually care about kids other than our own, isn't it time we stepped in and, as humane citizens, took a role in these children's lives rather than forever insisting that "they" must sort everything out? How about putting action before talk by becoming mentors, by giving a few hours a week to an arts or sports project in a deprived area or by visiting a child in prison? These are opportunities for showing an individual child or children that they are valued.

It really would be news if those children Sergeant has earmarked for the most dismal of futures were to confound expectations because, instead of begrudging the "wasted" taxes we spend on them, we gave them a bit of our time and energy and showed we thought they were worth it.

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act