It is difficult to avoid the issue of child abuse, the reports, analyses, recriminations, apologies. But then, why should we want to avoid them? Embarrassment, shame, yes – but above all, a sense of powerlessness in the face of something which has been shown to us, but about which we feel we can do very little.
The answer in today’s Britain is more legislation, more laws, more paperwork. This is not surprising, as it is our response currently to every problem. The real answer lies much deeper, in the way we live, the way we treat other people, and our own sense of responsibility for the health of society. But we have lived for too long with the notion that I have the right to decide what I want to do. Our sense of belonging to a society, a corporate body, guided by a general sense of right behaviour, mixed with plenty of common sense, and looking out for each other – as this has declined so legislation has increased.
The word ‘community’ is used a great deal nowadays, and most often of ethnic or special interest groups. Thus we have the ‘Polish community’ or the ‘football community’, or the ‘business community’. There are religious communities too (I don’t mean monks and nuns) so that we have the ‘Muslim community’ – but I can’t remember often hearing the ‘Christian community’ – at least not in this country. For that, the word is ‘the Church’, often used slightly disapprovingly, unless is it making decisions approved of by the liberal elite! True, the ‘local community’ features from time to time, though in our great cities it’s hardly clear just who belongs to it. East Enders, Corrie, The Archers are all struggling with the idea of the ‘local community’. The only ‘British community’ we hear about lives in Spain, and attempts to define ‘British values’ clash with ‘multiculturalism’.
Some thoughts then, about a fairly typical report a couple of days ago on the Today programme. In a sense, the details of the programme do not matter, though it concerned two of our northern cities, and asked what councils were doing to protect vulnerable children.
First, it talked about ‘CSE’. Now with a background in teaching now 40 years old I immediately understood the Certificate of Secondary Education: that’s the problem with initials. It took me a moment to gather that they were talking about Child Sexual Exploitation. Of course, ‘CSE’ allows them to cram more into a few words, in a short presentation. It’s quicker and less laborious than having to repeat the phrase ‘Child Sexual Exploitation’ or even think about varying it with ‘the exploitation of children’ or ‘sex by adults with children’. Notice the change too, from capitals to lower case – but has nastiness of what is happening diminished? Not to my mind. ‘CSE’ means nothing – or in this case it has two meanings, completely different from each other. But it can be dealt with as something ‘out there’. It is convenient, it is jargon, it fits in with ‘case conferences’ and ‘reports’. It has a professional ring… it belongs with the ‘professionals’ whom I can blame. What are the councils/police/social workers/the Church doing …?
Which leads me on to something which puzzled me: why was there no mention of the parents of the children? Some children were in care, yes, but why were they in care? Some children were in the care of a parent or parents. All of them were born to a man and woman, the people we call their parents. These people have the fundamental responsibility for the care and nurture of the child born to them. External factors like poverty, poor housing and lack of work, destabilise the family; so too, do drugs and alcohol. One or other – or both – parent may have been unfaithful, or they may never have married, or walked out on the family. The losers, every time, are the children. Deep down what every child wants and needs is a mother and father, who love and care for each other, and love and care for their child – no matter what. So let’s hear it for the family, and a bit less about what my rights as an individual are, and a bit more about my responsibilities to my wife, my husband, and my children.
I’ve gone on in other posts about the use of language, and I’m going to do it again. Why do we use the word ‘child’ of someone aged 15 and, in some cases, 17. The ‘children’ concerned would be furious to be called ‘child’ – and in any case, isn’t it cool to use the word ‘kids’? ‘Kids TV’, ‘kids clothes’. We use the word children because it implies someone vulnerable, less than responsible, open to exploitation, easily hurt and damaged. Yes, and yes again. This is what ‘young people’, ‘teenagers’ are. And they need guidance, formation, rules, direction – all that is part of love – and so is time, interest, encouragement, development, from their parents, teachers, group leaders, priests. And what about their role-models, footballers, for example, or pop stars – and what about politicians and those who form our opinions in the media? We can’t treat them as ‘children’ in this one small area, and yet as ‘adults’ with all the responsibilities that adult freedom brings, everywhere else. They are most vulnerable and most easily damaged in the area of their sexuality, most puzzled, worried and challenged by what is happening to them bodily and mentally. As they try to cope with their emotions they are likely to mistake exploitation for love. This will be particularly so for those who have been deprived of love by their parents, or who have seen ‘bad love’ between them.
Where does this treatment of children as if they were adults come from? It has been driven by commercialisation. As society has grown wealthier, and so children and young people have been targeted. They have money to spend. A world has been created in which they have their own fashion, music, social life, all of which costs. God help the child with the ‘wrong’ trainers! Parents feel that they do not understand their children, and that they are shut out from their world. Of course they are: and the people keeping the door shut are the money-makers. They are the exploiters, and progressively they have stolen young people from their parents, from their teachers, from their clergy – from any influence which might suggest that spending money on excess is not the road to happiness and fulfilment. Sexualisation of young people – and the age gets lower and lower – is a prime way of making money out of them. It’s time as a society we woke up, and said, ‘No’. But while we put the future of our children into a file marked ‘CSE’ we can avoid that daunting task.