Friday, 27 June 2008

An obnoxious brat in the street, a chilling leaflet... and my 14-year-old son who chants 'Childline' when I try to hug him


Tom Utley

26th June 2008


An obnoxious brat told me I freaked him out (file picture)

The other afternoon, I had an ugly encounter in the street outside the office. I'd nipped out for my umpteenth cigarette of the day when a child of about ten or 11, wearing school uniform, walked past me and dropped a leaflet on the pavement.

I picked it up, caught up with him and tapped him on the shoulder. 'You dropped this,' I said.

The boy spun round, glared at me and shouted: 'You freaked me out, man!' (by which I suppose he meant: 'Forgive me, sir. You startled me.')

I said I was sorry I'd freaked him out and showed him the leaflet, not knowing whether he'd dropped it intentionally or not.

If he'd done it on purpose, it was clearly my civic duty to tell him to put it in the bin instead of littering the pavement. If he'd done it by mistake, then I was doing him a service. After all, it might have been important  -  something to do with his homework, perhaps.

'You dropped this,' I said again. 'Do you want it?'

He yelled at me even more loudly than before: 'You freaked me out, man! Lay off me!' I took that as a No.

Then he did something so infuriating that I felt like slapping him: he dug into his satchel, took out more pieces of paper and  -  looking me insolently in the eye, with a sneery smile  -  dropped them one by one on the pavement.

What's a middle- aged, middle - class, upstanding member of the community supposed to do in Labour Britain, confronted by a little b*stard like that?

In a properly ordered world, of course, I would have grabbed him by the collar, forced him to pick up his litter and marched him to the nearest bin. I have four sons of my own, for heaven's sake, and even I  -  one of the most abject cowards on the planet  -  haven't the slightest physical fear of an 11-year-old squit.

But as we all know (and none of us better than that kid), the world has gone barking mad. If I'd laid a finger on him, I would probably be dictating this column from a cell in Wandsworth prison.

I toyed with the idea of picking up all the paper he'd dropped, to set him an example of good citizenship. But as he stood there jeering at me, my pride wouldn't let me. I'm not a ruddy saint. So I just threw him what I hoped he would take as a dignified scowl, stubbed out my cigarette on the pavement (a rotten example, I know) and stalked back to the office.

Final score: Obnoxious Little Brat 3; Civilisation 0.

Only when I was back at my desk did I realise that I still had in my hand the first leaflet the child had dropped. It was produced by the Metropolitan Police and headed: 'Think Safe, Team Up! Personal Safety Advice for Young People.' He'd obviously just been given it at school.

As I read it, I thought it went a long way towards explaining why my tormentor had felt so justified in abusing me and so confident that I could do absolutely nothing about it.

Almost every line in it encouraged children to look upon adults not as authority figures to be respected, but as perverts and predators to be deeply distrusted and despised.

Here's a selection of the Met's advice to children travelling on foot: 'Think about safe places on your route such as a friend's house, or a shop or public building where you can go and ask for help. At night, look for a house with lights on, with signs of young people living there such as bikes or scooters in the front garden...

'If you feel uneasy about someone who is walking ahead of you, cross the road to avoid them. . . Avoid parked cars with their engines running and people sitting in them  -  you could be dragged into the car. . .'

Blimey! No wonder I freaked the horrible child out.

On trains, the leaflet advises, children should choose an open carriage where there are several other passengers. On buses, they are told to take an aisle seat and sit as near to the driver as possible. 'If someone sits by you and makes you feel uneasy then get up and move.'

When they are at home alone, they are told: 'If someone calls (like a gas/electric meter reader), tell them it is not convenient and to telephone for an appointment. . . Avoid telling anyone that you are alone. If necessary, say that your parent/carer is in the bath and they can't get to the door.'


My 14-year-old son jokingly threatens to call ChildLine if I dare tell him off or give him a bedtime hug

For good measure, the Met offers children a long list of authorities they can contact if they have any trouble from adults, ranging from ChildLine to the UK Youth Parliament and the Children's Safety Education Foundation, which 'aims to help deliver preventative safety education to every child in the United Kingdom'.

Yes, of course a great deal of the advice in the leaflet is thoroughly sensible (though is it really any part of the Met's job to tell children ' Bullying can occur because of your age, disability, faith, gender, race or sexual orientation'?).

But I can't help feeling that material like this, drummed remorselessly into our children from their primary schools onwards, has contributed greatly to upsetting the balance of power between children and adults, so that we grownups are left with no means at all of making them behave themselves. Something very unhealthy has happened to the relationship between the generations in modern Britain.

This week, the Civitas think-tank came to much the same conclusion in its report, Licensed To Hug, on the pernicious effects of the Government's latest child protection policies.

Sociologist Professor Frank Furedi, who co-wrote the report, says that laws such as the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act are 'poisoning' interactions between adults and children.

This is the Act, in force since April, which insists that any adult who has contact with children under 16 must first be vetted by the Criminal Records Bureau. According to the professor, this will mean no fewer than

11.3million people  -  a quarter of all adults in England  -  will have to undergo the official 'anti-paedophile' test.

He and his fellow author Jenny Bristow report many examples of the unpleasant consequences of this hysteria  -  from mums being banned from helping out at the school disco to a shortfall in volunteers for work in children's organisations, as a growing number of adults are put off by the bureaucracy, expense and downright insult of having to subject themselves to vetting.

From my own family's experience, I could add the example of my dear old mum, who at the age of 79 had to submit to CRB vetting before she was allowed to do voluntary work helping backward children to read. When was the last time you heard of an elderly middle-class grandmother molesting a child?

The whole rigmarole was stupid and humiliating. What a way to treat a lady who, in her socially conscious way, wanted only to give less fortunate children some of the help she had lavished on me and my siblings when we were young.

Then was the time when the gasman, fitting our new boiler, told my wife that she couldn't leave our third son alone in the house with him, since my son was a few weeks short of his 16th birthday at the time.

I could have told the researchers, too, how my 14-year-old jokingly chants 'ChildLine! ChildLine!' at me, when I tell him off or give him a bedtime hug. It's amusing enough, coming from him. But all children of his generation know the power they have been handed by the current wave of hysteria  -  and, believe me, it's not at all amusing when that power is wielded by an 11-year-old monster dropping litter in Kensington High Street.

All right, he may have been startled for a moment when I tapped him on the shoulder  -  particularly since he'd just been reading the Met's scaremongering leaflet. But as soon as he realised I was just a harmless old bore, rebuking him for dropping litter, he knew he had me completely at his mercy  -  and that he could make a damn sight more trouble for me than I ever could for him.

If we value our country's future, wouldn't we be wise to redress the balance of power, double quick?

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