At the beginning of this week a boy in North Belfast set himself alight while committing arson in a derelict house. I don’t need to dwell on the misery of the parents nor the stupidity and blind ignorance of the child. This incident raises so many aspects of today’s living that I have decided to comment on them individually. The aspect of this one which frightens me most is the fact that when a contractor and his men went to pull down some of these houses on behalf of the council, they were attacked with Molotov cocktails thrown by youths who looked upon the derelict houses as an adventure playground. What comes out of this more than anything is a complete disrespect for authority, and the knowledge of the law that these children have. They know that it is not worthwhile taking them to court because they will not get a custodial sentence, merely a rap over the knuckles.
In my day we had hanging, birching and all the other ills of the penal system, and while it was obvious to most that recidivists were incorrigible, there was still an innate fear of what could happen if you stepped over the mark. We were caned in both school and home for minor infringements and our attitude to authority was virtually unwavering in its respect. One would have no more thought of even answering back let alone hitting a teacher, and my wife, Sophie, who was a good teacher, only had to resort to detention or some other minor punishment to maintain discipline throughout her career. She like many teachers who have now retired, who were good teachers in their day, would now not dream of entering the profession. The pendulum of respect, has swung too far in the opposite direction, mainly through ginger groups, basing their doctrine for the general on only a few individual cases of excessive physical chastisement. They have persuaded governments that corporal punishment in any form, is psychologically bad. One only has to look at David Attenborough’s wildlife films to realise that in nature parental control is also a matter of physical chastisement. As one who was chastised both rightly and erroneously, I believe that unless the form of chastisement has done some permanent physical damage, the discomfort is forgotten fairly soon, and in most cases the lesson is learned. Year in and year out we in Northern Ireland have seen children and youths hurling stones, bricks and Molotov Cocktails at the army and the police, and we have been frustrated that the laws were such that these young people were allowed both by those in charge and their parents to repeatedly enjoy this form of entertainment, because that is what it was.
I cannot stress enough how the standards of courtesy, respect, and decency have dropped as a percentage of the general conduct of life, in an exponentially increasing rate since the end of World War 2. .If one were to blame the reduction of parental control as one of the primary causes, then the outcome is bound to be of a steadily increasing nature, because each successive generation has not had the same parental control as its predecessor and so it will diminish with time.. Assuming that this basic premise has some merit, the fact that children are demonstrably leading less active lives, and also the nature of their social lives, introduce another factor, that of emulation or the effect or the lack of it.. Those who are in gangs are emulating all the wrong principles. It is difficult to see how the trend can be reversed. In my childhood the churches, the Scouting movement, the Boys Brigade, coupled with a more simple approach to life, more open spaces and more outdoor activities, ensured the intermingling of the children of all ages, and a more gregarious childhood. A stop must be made by councils and government on the handing over of playing fields, parks and open spaces to housing and supermarkets. Safety in all its forms is now a priority, and when it comes to open spaces this is a burden on the local authorities. They have to protect the children using those facilities. Hardly a day passes than we hear of children being taken, stabbed, and stabbing one another – all symptoms of the disrespect of one for another, and of the law. I believe that we require an open forum to which all can contribute their experiences, their worries and their fears, their needs and their aspirations. Perhaps when this information is categorised and analysed a solution may emerge, which is applicable to all, workable and sustainable.