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     Volume 4 Issue 39 | March 25, 2005 |

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Dealing With Delinquency

Farah Ghuznavi

As any parent will tell you, in affluent societies -- or in affluent segments of a developing country, child rearing has become a growth industry. People spend millions of dollars on everything from designer clothes and expensive toys, to lessons in ballet/piano/classical music/art classes/sports, to birthday parties and fast food outings, to the inevitable and ubiquitous proliferation of books on how to bring up children well.

I find it rather interesting how many of these child raising manuals discuss how to develop your child's potential (which is undeniably a good thing), but almost exclusively focus on so-called "creative" talents, rather than the less exciting, more traditional issues of good manners and pleasant behaviour. I have a suspicion that the current preoccupation in some quarters with problems of child behaviour (or rather, misbehaviour), may not be totally unrelated to that omission.

With growing numbers of parents earning more money, and having smaller families (particularly, but not exclusively, in the western world), children in such families are inevitably growing up far more privileged. Where such privilege is not balanced by a degree of healthy discipline and instilling a sense of decency or ethics in children, you may unsurprisingly end up with a bunch of spoilt or unruly brats! It continues to surprise me how many parents seem not to (or choose not to) realise this, particularly because -- I feel -- that in social terms, we are storing up a time-bomb for ourselves, the manifestations of which range from the absurd to the extremely serious.

Recently, in Britain, two young boys were arrested for six hours for "causing distress". The incident involved the boys brandishing £1 imitation weapons, and running around on the streets doing "commando rolls" (i.e. imitating soldiers in war movies and video games), emitting bloodcurdling yells, with one wearing a Frankenstein mask and the other Santa hat (admittedly a bizarre combination!). Given the current fears over gun crime in the UK, and the fact that criminals have successfully adapted imitation weapons for actual use, it is perhaps not that strange that the incident created a disturbance. And no doubt the boys were behaving in a manner that both alarmed and caused distress to passers-by, but it has to be some kind of comment on our times, that so many people were genuinely alarmed by the behaviour of pre-teens, and sufficiently so for the police to be called in!

While the incident may appear bizarre, the kind of fear generated probably stems from reportage of events such as the death of the elderly man in the genteel town of San Luis Obispo (in the US) at the hands of two young teenagers, who bludgeoned him to death with their skateboards before stealing his car. Perhaps as disturbing as the event itself was the subsequent realisation that several of the neighbourhood children had been to see his corpse lying in a pool of blood, before it was discovered by the police two days later. The investigation is now ongoing as to why none of the children reported the death.

A similar incident in the UK was the recent death of a teenager at the hands of two older teenagers who deliberately threw him into the river and watched him drown, fully aware that he was terrified of water and could not swim. The boys subsequently went home and confessed to their actions, but stubbornly maintained that it was just a bit of fun. Other children who witnessed the event, and tried to save the boy, stated that the bullies kicked his hands away whenever he tried to get a grip on the river bank. While these incidents are extreme, there is little doubt that they occur with far greater frequency than they did a few decades ago. And not just in western countries, we too have seen similar instances in Bangladesh, particularly in terms of the harassment of girls e.g., the young girl who was driven into a pond by a group of boys who were chasing her. The girl eventually drowned as they watched.

At a much lower level of intensity, general anti-social behaviour and the occasional instance of random violence is evident in the rise of phenomena such as "Happy-slap TV". This refers to a particularly obnoxious practice by some youngsters in London (which has since been clamped down on hard by the authorities) of unprovoked attacks on strangers in buses, where one teenager slaps the victim while another takes a picture of the incident on their mobile phone and sends it to friends. The fact that these children have cell phone with a camera gives a hint as to their relatively prosperous backgrounds.

Fortunately, it seems that the authorities are finally learning to fight back more effectively, albeit sometimes using rather unorthodox methods. Thus, in some shops and city centres in Britain, as well as in tube stations (where groups of teenagers tend to congregate, and occasionally behave badly), it has been found that changing the content of the music being piped over the PA system can have interesting effects. Classical music seems to have spectacularly little appeal for troublesome youths, and playing Mozart and Pavarotti has been particularly effective in driving them away! Their lack of familiarity with this music has been the explanation for this phenomenon. No doubt Mozart is turning in his grave…

As a preventive step, the UK Department of Education has a £10 million plan to improve behaviour at secondary schools by instilling at an earlier stage basic standards of kindness and thoughtfulness. The "niceness classes will include 'What am I feeling?'" quizzes, where children will draw emotional barometers on which the strength of their feelings will be rated. They will discuss issues relating to anger, and respect towards others. A "good friend wall" in which every brick contains a description of some friendly quality, will be built. Cuddly toys will be passed around for classroom stroking so that the advantages of giving praise and compliments can be explored.

This is not as absurd as it sounds, and not only because of the earlier incidents mentioned. Given that the London Underground system has recently had to hand out "Baby on Board" badges for pregnant women to wear on the Tube in order to encourage people to give them their seats, some general attempt to improve manners is obviously in order. You might think that people would automatically do this, but evidence gathered indicates that this is clearly not the case for sufficient numbers of the general public. Perhaps they should have had niceness classes when they were younger?

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