A showtrial of children for being naughty

The conviction of two boys for attempted rape is not only a travesty of justice – it also exposes society’s screwed-up attitude towards childhood.

The conviction at the Old Bailey in London of a 10-year-old boy and an 11-year-old boy for attempted rape is bad enough. That the children were convicted despite the fact that the eight-year-old defendant admitted in court that she had made up the story of her ordeal is even worse. But what was worst of all was the very public exploitation of these three children for the purposes of working out adult fantasies.

This sordid spectacle had nothing to do with justice. As the trial judge Justice Saunders acknowledged, the case would have collapsed if the defendant had been an adult, because the evidence provided by the young girl was so inconsistent. That’s another way of saying that in these proceedings, what really counted was not the evidence on offer, but adult prejudices and the imperative of sending the ‘right message’.

What makes this case particularly important is that it exposes the insidious consequences of the disintegration of adult control over children. In recent decades, parents and adults more broadly have come under tremendous pressure not to discipline children. Punishment has become a dirty word in child-rearing manuals, smacking has become stigmatised, and parents who raise their voices to their children are denounced for being ‘emotionally abusive’.

Teachers, too, face tremendous pressure to pretend that they don’t see any misbehaviour in their classrooms. They have very few effective means of disciplining youngsters. Consequently, most of the time children’s behaviour is relatively uncontained by adult behaviour. By the time they are 10 or 11, far too many children know that if they use the f-word in public or misbehave on the streets, the grown-ups around them will pretend that they heard and saw nothing.

The flipside of grown-ups’ paralysis towards containing children’s behaviour is a new reliance on formal processes to compensate for the loss of adult authority. So when the situation with a certain child appears to get out of hand, we issue an anti-social behaviour order or, as in this Old Bailey case, carry out a showtrial. Through such a showtrial, the prosecution can pretend that it is punishing individuals who are ‘criminally responsible’ rather than admitting what it is really doing: disciplining children. As is the case with all showtrials, the aim was not just to punish the so-called offenders but to send a message to a wider audience.

Predictably, this showtrial and the subsequent miscarriage of justice have provoked a debate about the age of criminal responsibility. And of course, dragging 10- and 11-year-old boys into the Old Bailey is utterly wrong. However, this trial raises a far more disturbing issue than the unacceptably low age at which children are treated as criminals these days. It exposes society’s inability to make any meaningful distinction between forms of behaviour that are appropriate between adults and forms of behaviour that are appropriate between children.

British society has become so morally disoriented about childhood that it has lost the ability to make a moral distinction between childhood and adulthood. It looks upon adults as simply biologically mature children, and children as physically underdeveloped grown-ups. This leads to a tragic state of affairs where children’s behaviour is continually interpreted through the prism of adult imaginations. At its worst, contemporary British culture attributes adult motives to children’s behaviour. Consequently, even infants in nurseries are told off for their ‘harassment’ of other kids or for their ‘racist’ behaviour.

Adult obsessions with sex are recycled through the discussion of children. As a result, society tends to sexualise children through interpreting youngsters’ behaviour as if it is driven by adult motives. The adult world – including many child experts and policymakers – often see sexual motives behind normal children’s behaviour. We live in a world where six-year-old children are expelled from school for inappropriate sexual behaviour, where a 10-year-old boy is put on the Sex Offenders’ Register for touching a girl, and where playing ‘doctors and nurses’ is increasingly interpreted as the precursor to an act of sexual violence.

Sadly, ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’ by young children has become a new policy obsession. Typically, the difference between ‘inappropriate’ and ‘appropriate’ behaviour is in the eye of the beholder. New guidance for social workers says they should recognise that children are at risk from their peers and that they should not interpret sexual play as ‘normal’. Social workers are advised not to have any kind of ‘high threshold’ before taking action. But the truth is that there are a great many forms of behaviour and experiences that are entirely harmless in the context of children’s lives, yet which would take on a more sinister meaning if they were carried out by an adult. Today, officialdom is falling into the trap of rediscovering the dark side of adult behaviour in the playpen.

One final point. This showtrial is not just a classic example of how not to treat children. It is also symbolic of the broader infantilisation of English justice. The spectacle at the Old Bailey had nothing to do with a normal courtroom drama. The transformation of the court into a make-believe primary-school classroom – with specially lowered chairs and break-times for the kids – was fuelled by an adult fantasy that pretend justice is the equivalent of the real thing. The adults played their bit – with the judge leaving his wig and gown at home – as they went through the motions of treating the proceedings as if they were a proper trial. The mothers of the boys sat by their children as if they were waiting in a dentist’s surgery.

But in truth, this make-believe court scene was part of a ritual which criminalises children who play doctors and nurses and which incites eight- and 10-year-olds to act out the role of ‘rape victim’ and ‘sexual predator’ for a watching adult audience. In their hearts, everyone involved in this mock-trial knew that everything about it was fake.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume reviewed Helene Guldburg‘s book Reclaiming Childhood. Back in 2001 Jennie Bristow saw childhood on trial at the parole hearings of James Bulger’s killers. Stuart Waiton looked at a report scrutinising adult-child relations. In 2005, Dolan Cummings asked whykids in hoodies had become a focus for public policy. And Dr Michael Fitzpatrick criticised society’s unhealthy obsession with abuse. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

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