The Riots, Communities and Victims Panel’s independent report on the causes of last summer’s riots is officially published today, but having been leaked to Sky News yesterday, the launch is now a complete non-event. I suspect they may be a bit annoyed by this.
The part of the report that has gained most attention is this comment:
“We heard from many communities who felt that rioter behaviour could ultimately be ascribed to poor parenting,”
These are the main recommendations that the report proposes:
* Schools should be penalised if pupils leave without being able to read or write
* Prison-leavers should be given more support
* Young people out of work long-term should be promised a job
* Joined up public services for 500,000 ‘forgotten families’
I’m not going to go into much detail as to my thoughts on the riots as you can read them in my previous posts; The Archbishop of Canterbury and the English summer riots and Reflecting on the English summer riots: God’s justice.
Instead, I’d like to consider whether poor parenting is likely to have been the main cause, how much of a problem it is and what should be done about it. Much of my thinking comes from anecdotal evidence. As a teacher and ex-youth worker I’ve worked with thousands of young people over the years from a whole range of backgrounds and as a result I’ve gained an insight into the lives of many of them over this time.
I do wonder what has changed over the last few decades that has resulted in “500,000 forgotten families who ‘bump along the bottom’ of society”, as the report puts it. After the riots the Government identified 120,000 ‘problem’ families who need urgent intervention to improve their situation. However you look at it, these are scarily big numbers.
The report closely links those involved with the riots and families with long-term unemployment. Since 1996, the number of UK households where no-one has ever worked has more than doubled from 132,000 to 297,000. This is an alarming increase and must surely be one of the root causes of the problem. We’ve always had unemployment but I’d like to know if long-term unemployment has ever been close to being as bad as it is now. Long-term unemployment leads to unhealthy dependency. In the same way that children take for granted their parents’ time and effort spent looking after them and will generally only learn how much they have been cared for once they become independent and leave home, so there is a dangerous tendency for those who have become dependent on the state to expect to be looked after and not realise just how much they are being propped up by the rest of society.
You can’t attribute bad parenting and the riots solely to unemployment though. What we have seen over the last few decades is more and more chaotic and unstable family relationships. Much of it is due to the increase of children being born outside of stable relationships or mothers having children with different partners and with children not knowing or losing regular contact with a parent, usually their father. It is harder for a single parent to manage the demands of bringing up children. There are few jobs for unskilled workers now and yet many children do not value their education and waste the opportunities it presents. Often this rejection of the value of education will have been passed down from parents. Respect for authority has decreased and this has been reflected in family life. Christian belief has declined and the strong Christian moral framework for living has been rejected or forgotten. Partly as a result materialism has increased and people increasingly find their worth in their material possessions leading to unhealthy approaches to fulfilment in life. Parents’ love for their children is increasingly shown through spending money rather than quality relationships. We have also lost the sense of knowing our place, not in a class sense, but rather realising that some will have bigger incomes and be able to afford better lifestyles. Many are not content with what they have and resent those who have more. Parents, maybe subconsciously, teach their children to expect to have more but not teach them that for most people, you have to put a lot into life to get a lot out of it.
All of this is a dangerous cocktail that leaves many with dysfunctional and broken lives. As this way of life is handed down the generations, so it becomes more ingrained. Poor parenting and family breakdown is a major problem that is increasing, but it comes as a result of children being poorly parented and then quickly becomes a vicious cycle and one that can spread further easily.
Most of those involved in the riots have dysfunctional lives. This has to have come from somewhere and for most it is a result of their upbringing, which implies that many have received poor parenting. It may not be the sole cause of why so many young people rioted, but it must surely be one of the main factors for a large number of them.
So what do we do to break this cycle? Well, if it was a simple problem to fix, then I think the Government would be right on top of it. After all it could potentially save them billions.
The report suggests that schools need to take more responsibility and be fined if children leave not being able to read and write. Schools, however, cannot ever be seen as substitute parents as they can’t influence a child’s actions when they are away from the school premises. I agree that we should expect everyone to leave school with at least basic qualifications, but schools are shackled by the constraints of the national curriculum and have little time and resources to give low achievers what they really need. If schools were to be given more freedom and maybe some targeted money, then this could potentially become a realistic goal.
Advertising law could be changed to reduce children’s exposure to adverts and product placement in the hope of making them less materialistic. Would this actually make any significant difference though? Most children’s desire to want more is established from an early age and is unlikely to lessen as they get older, unless they are taught otherwise.
Youth unemployment does urgently need to be addressed. Once a young person gets a taste of a regular income, it’s a lot harder for them to then go on benefits and see less money in their pocket. However, there are many young people who haven’t got the social skills or motivation to hold down a job and without a change in attitude along with support, they are never going to make any progress.
How can we expect someone who has a child to automatically know how to parent well, especially if the parenting they received was inadequate? Even for those from strong families it is a big challenge. It seems like madness that parents to be are offered anti-natal classes to help them get through the birth, but are offered no help in parenting beyond the first days of a child’s life. If we seriously want to address poor parenting, then education must be the starting point. Many churches are offering this in the form of parenting courses, but they can’t expect everyone to come through their doors.
This really is not easy to solve, not because things can’t be done, but because it affects so many people. To add to this, you can offer families ways out of the messes they are in, but if they haven’t got the inclination or motivation to do anything about it then very little is going to be achieved. Having listened to comments on the news, the consensus is that more money is needed to see change happen. Unfortunately, as a country, we don’t have much at the moment. In some ways this is a good thing as plenty of money could be potentially wasted trying to fix this. We need to be more innovative in our approach. We need a few more carrots and sticks, but also the Government realises this isn’t a problem it can sort out on its own. Emotional and psychological scars along with a poverty of values leading to generational failings will never be fixed by government policy. Something more fundamental is needed too.