When I first went to work in the Inner City, the priests used to say regularly that they could tell, on the day of their baptism, with 95% accuracy, whether a child would end up in prison. I soon came to understand why.
John is eleven years old. He lives with his four brothers and sisters; his parents are both alcoholics. They stopped paying the ESB bill so the electricity was cut off. They spend most nights in the pub and sometimes when they return home, always drunk, an almighty row develops. The parents fight, shout and scream at each other. The row may go on for two hours or more. John lies awake into the early hours of the morning, wishing his parents would shut up and go to bed. Often John decides to leave his home when it gets dark and won’t return until he knows all the fighting is over. But that means staying out on the streets till three or four in the morning, sometimes all night.
John used to go to school, but he was always tired. He sat at the back of the class, worrying about his parents’ drinking and fighting, or where he would sleep that night. He tried to concentrate on the lessons, but his mind kept wandering back to his night before. He felt like crying but he couldn’t let himself down in front of the other kids. So he became a “problem” child and eventually the school expelled him.
John feels he is a loser, a failure, different to the other kids. The school didn’t want him. He feels no-one else wants him, no-one likes him, no-one is interested in him.
John hangs around with older guys on the street. Sometimes they rob and take drugs. But so what, they seem to want him. They call to his house looking for him, they won’t let anyone hit him. He feels he belongs there.
John’s aspirations, hopes and values have little in common with other eleven year olds. He lives in a different world. His interaction with the bigger world around him is primarily one of conflict – by both sides!
In cases like John, we tend to blame the parents. But John’s parents may have grown up in a similar situation, began drinking at an early age because that is what they saw their own parents do, and can only relate to each other by fighting. In other cases, they may have suffered abuse as children and never got help, so their only way of coping is to get drunk and forget. Some of these parents are locked into a pattern of behaviour and coping and don’t know how to get out of it. If we blame the parents, we have to pass blame back to the grandparents, and then the great grandparents and so on – a futile exercise. Indeed, I have visited in prison, at the same time, three generations of the same family. In one case, the daughter, at the age of seven, was regularly kept out of school to accompany the parent on their shoplifting expeditions, trained to distract the shop security, and the child has known nothing else. Sometimes the child was encouraged to rob, and was praised when they returned home with money for their parents. Many of these children are victims of inadequate parenting, as were their parents, and so on, back down the line for generations.
How should we respond to John’s situation? Take John into care? Actually John is fond of his parents and very protective of them. So removing him from the home may create a many problems as it solves.
Parental influence is recognised as the single most important factor in determining children's future behavioural patterns. To help John, we have to help the parents.
My starting point for intervening in the family is my belief that the vast majority of parents, including problem parents of problem children, want to do their best for their children. They are the source of the solution, not just the cause of the problem. Their best is clearly not good enough – and most parents know it. But they feel unable to do any better.
The critical time for intervening is when the children are very small, when parents still feel capable of influencing their children’s behaviour. As the children grow up, as they move through primary school, and then – if they get there - second-level education, the parents often feel more and more powerless to control their children’s behaviour. The “professionals” come to be seen as more important in influencing the children – teachers, social workers, probation officers and so on. And so, early intervention is critical. While older children are more influence by peer group pressure, this, too, is related to parental supervision at an earlier age, as those children who are least well supervised as young children tend to mix with the “wrong crowd” in later years.
Adult education courses and early intervention projects aimed at informing and supporting parents are key to helping John. They save a lot of money in later years, enable some young people to reach their potential and make a valuable contribution to society. It’s a “no-brainer”. However, such programmes, too few in number, are often seen by Government as “non-essential” and sometimes exist precariously from year to year. And so John will have a son, who I will be writing about in fifteen years time.
Posted in Disadvantaged