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, director of the charity Generating Genius
19 February 2007

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