The Trouble with Kids These Days
How do we acknowledge the problem without writing troubled youngsters off as irredeemable?
Last night, I watched an episode of 999: What’s Your Emergency? while working on one of my many literary projects. I’m not usually that interested in mainstream TV, but tonight’s episode covered underage criminals, and this was something of a hot topic where I grew up. Basically, the area was rough as fuck, and gangs of out-of-control children roamed the streets, vandalising and stealing stuff and starting fights with strangers. And these were children. Not even teenagers, but kids. As a result of my experiences growing up, I still have a fear of groups of young people. I’ve been primed to expect danger. Even living nowadays in an inner-city area, that sort of trouble is unthinkable to most people that I know—and yet on the council estates that we choose to forget, this is everyday life.
On yesterday’s episode, the rest of the world seemed to have caught up with the world of my youth. I know that my hometown has a reputation for being extremely violent and scummy, but I find it astonishing that the police officers being filmed were shocked by the fact that young children are engaging in criminal behaviour en masse. When I was a kid, it was the norm. My parents were overprotective to the point of doing me harm—I didn’t really have a proper childhood—but I can understand why they were like that, given all that was going on outside their front door.
It always seemed, from my point-of-view, that adults were decades behind the times when it came to what us kids were up to, and how much we actually knew. We used to joke about how naïve the older generation seemed, and how prudish, seeking to avoid talk of controversial topics, thinking they were protecting us when actually we knew it all.
My parents seemed to have high expectations of council estate life, and so they would foolishly complain about the behaviour of other residents, expecting them to reflect on their actions and hopefully change their ways. Haha, NOPE. Between the ages of 10 and 18, I just remember our family getting terrorised by the local youths. And figuring out which of our neighbours was settling which dispute against some other poor sod this week. And the police seemed to be just… tired of it all. Like, there wasn’t really much that they could do, as of course the perpetrators were thick as pig-shit generally, but experts in how to not give anything away that might incriminate themselves. From my family’s view, it seemed like the police couldn’t be bothered—but it’s probably more that they couldn’t actually do anything about it.
Growing up in a tough environment like that, I very quickly learnt how to extract myself from difficult situations, and to evaluate which battles were worth fighting, and which ones really weren’t.
So now, it seems like the police in general have been better trained in dealing with younger criminals, and they are more equipped to keep the peace on problem estates. I doubt that this is a new phenomenon in other parts of the country, but it’s something that we’ve conveniently hushed up as a nation. While I applaud realistic portrayals of working-class life in film, literature, and commentary, I have felt that we often gloss over the less-savoury aspects. I’m sure that Tracey from Wilmslow is astounded at the way the common children behave, but she doesn’t need to think about it once she’s changed channel to watch Gardener’s World instead. This is real life for thousands of us.
Children that I knew at school were not innocent little cherubs. They were more streetwise than many adults are these days (yes, I know that those kids are also adults now, but the vast majority of the chattering classes haven’t even driven past a sink estate, let alone survived the ordeal for 18 whole years). They knew they were untouchable, and that they could get away with just about anything. There was no use sending them home to their parents—because they didn’t care either. On tonight’s programme, two of the officers hunted in vain for a responsible adult to return one of the tearaways to (who had, incidentally, been caught in possession of a knife and some cannabis—he was 14), but their mum wasn’t home, neither were their grandparents, so they just had to release the little scamp (sans weapon and drugs) and hope he didn’t get up to anything else that afternoon.
There was some element of accountability, though. One of the teenagers they arrested had recently turned 18. As the documentary had informed us, the police can arrest ne’er-do-wells from the age of 10 upwards, but they cannot be tried as adults until they are 18. However, there are things that will stay on your record from childhood (I once worked with somebody that had to declare on job applications an offence committed under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, related to teenage misbehaviour on a jet-ski, so these things do stay with you!), and as soon as you have hit the magic age of majority, you immediately become accountable for your own actions. This episode’s birthday boy was filmed asking for an appropriate adult to be present with him in the interview, to which the duty sergeant asked, “Why?” He said it was because he was a child, but he was sharply reminded of what the law says: once you’re 18, your fate is in your own hands. He’d have been entitled to representation from the duty solicitor, but he could no longer rely on his parents to take responsibility for his behaviour. It seems odd that he was so clueless about this, given kids from that sort of background seem to know so much about their rights…
I think that some of the things the officers said were a little out-of-touch. They were people of my generation, so it’s a bit sad to see people my age already becoming behind the times and set in their ways. One of them commented that the reason children are so out-of-control these days is because people are frightened to discipline their kids, and then told us that if they’d done some of the things these kids get up to, that they’d have been in for a right hiding. It sounded a little too much like something straight out of the Daily Mail, and it really isn’t true. Parents of kids like that don’t care about whether anyone knows that they slap their kids; they don’t really care about… anything. That was one of the driving factors behind the Wild West nature of my hometown—that the parents of these scallywags couldn’t care less what their little darlings were up to. In fact, if you dared complain to them about their kids’ nasty behaviour, you’d probably get a smack as well.
And that’s where the trouble happens. They’ve lived out the first eighteen years of their lives believing that they’re untouchable, and that their parents will stick up for them if anyone dares challenge them. At 18, they become criminally responsible, and the police are far less forgiving. While even fairly serious offences may result in no action if you’re a kid, it’s a different story when you’re legally an adult. And you can’t go running to mummy and daddy forever—with a criminal record, it makes it very hard for you to find work. And the kind of work you’ll be able to find will not set you up for a successful career. Criminal convictions stay with you for a long time (especially if they carry a sentence of more than 4 years, or you have to sign the sex offenders register—that shit stays with you for life).
I feel conflicted about the limits that a criminal record places on a person. I firmly believe that everyone deserves a chance at rehabilitation. If they blow it, well, that’s their problem. But they should at least be given the opportunity to demonstrate that they have changed. And I firmly believe that one of the greatest barriers to social mobility is the effect of having a criminal record. Nice, middle-class jobs are further out of your reach and you have to work more than twice as hard just to get to the same starting point as other candidates. How can we break the cycle of poverty & criminality if there are no second chances? But we do need to prevent future harm, and we do need to present a deterrent. The thing is, that if these criminals start their lives not giving a damn about consequences, at what point will they take note?
It does seem strange to me that it’s a revelation to many of the viewing public that teenage criminality is a real thing in our country. It’s like it’s something that doesn’t happen in nice places, like our suburban paradise. I smile wryly when friends urge me to take care getting home—it’s not like I’ll face half the dangers I would walking through someone else’s turf to get back indoors. But I promise you, whatever deprivation and violence and ignorance you think you can imagine, I can top it. Shining a light on it is the start of cleaning it up—admitting that not all is rosy in England’s green and pleasant land is that first step we need to take. Stop pretending that it doesn’t happen to “nice” people—there are plenty of nice people living on council estates and they are sick of this shit.