"What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?" Plato in the 4th Century BC.
Concern over the behaviour of young people is not new. Every generation considers the one following to be more degenerate than itself.
And the recent riots have catapulted such concerns to the forefront of the political agenda, eliciting myriad explanations for children and young people’s behaviour and values in 21st century Britain.
The individualists, on the right, who bemoan a descent into moral decadence, greed, criminality and violence by feral youth lacking discipline at home and school, seek heavy sanctions to deter and punish.
The welfare-based commentators also focus responsibility on the specific perpetrators, but argue that family breakdown, unemployment, educational failure, addiction and debt has led to the 'fraying' of the social fabric, and involvement in gangs.
Solutions involve targeting the failing families with incentives and sanctions to bring them into line with the values and behaviours considered acceptable by the wider society.
On the other hand, those on the left highlight the wider social, economic, structural and ethical factors influencing the behaviours and attitudes of young people. They argue for greater investment in measures to address inequality and social exclusion.
There are no easy answers. If there were, humanity would have resolved the problems of conflict, injustice, and violence long ago. Clearly, there are explanations to be found at both the individual and societal levels. It is neither possible to ignore the criminal responsibility of some of those who rioted, nor the impact of poverty, inequality, cuts and the apparent impunity for the powerful who behave with indifference to the welfare of society.
But we should begin by asking the right questions and asking the right people. First, instead of focusing exclusively on deficits, what went wrong, who are the problems, why did people break the law, and how to destroy the gangs, we need to examine what works. Within those communities where violence flared, why did some young people resist taking part, where are they getting support, what does gang culture offer young people and how they can be enabled to identify safer and more positive means of fulfilling those needs.
In other words, we need to recognise and learn about the strengths within those communities, and how their capacities can be supported and utilised for the public good. And secondly, we need to create the space to listen seriously to young people themselves – not just in the immediate aftermath of events but on a serious and sustained basis. One of the repeated messages that did arise when the young rioters were questioned was a perception that no-one cared or valued them, they were excluded and invisible: engaging in the riots provided a sense of excitement, powerfulness, and engagement missing in the routine of their lives.
Not only do children and young people have a right to be listened to and taken seriously, but they have unique and invaluable insights into their own experience, perspectives and needs. It is not possible to adopt successful policies that impact on their lives, without engaging them as partners in designing and constructing those policies.
The recent UNICEF research, following an earlier study which found the overall well-being of children in the UK to be worse than in any comparable country, did listen to children and young people in Sweden, Spain and the UK, as well as their parents. And it provides important insights of relevance to this debate.
On the one hand, it demonstrates clearly that, contrary to received wisdom, children and young people value family, friendships and outdoor activities far more highly than the acquisition of material goods. On the other, it found UK families struggling to spend time with children. It paints a picture of stressed, guilty parents, faced with pressures of work impeding the quality life they want to offer their children. The purchase of goods was widely used as a substitute for activities and engagement.
This contrasts starkly with the picture in Spain and Sweden, where family time appeared to be woven into the fabric of everyday life. And by secondary school, the participation of British children in active and creative pursuits – pursuits that children said made them happy - had in fact dwindled, whilst this occurred less in other countries.
The message arising is very clear. We are failing as a society to provide the very things that children clearly express a need for. And we are failing to support parents to offer the family life they know to be important. If politicians are serious about finding answers, they must stop demonising young people and undermining their human rights. Instead, they need to start listening to what children and their parents are saying. And the findings must inform how they respond to the wider issues underpinning the riots.
Gerison Lansdown is founder director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England