Guest Essay: We must be ‘morality surrogates’
This month’s guest essay is adapted from a speech by Emma-Jane Cross, Chief Executive of Beatbullying. Emma-Jane delivered the speech – a call for both respect and support for young people - at Demos when she appeared on a panel at the launch of the Capabilities Programme on 13 May 2009. You can download the audio from Emma's talk here (16MB, mp3).
Are the majority of our children and young people in moral crisis? Quite definitely not. As a society we buy into a crude and dangerous caricature if we believe our young people do not possess character. The vast majority knows how to be good, perhaps in spite of us.
Millions of young people, despite constant demonization, live positive lives. They are hopeful, ambitious, curious and kind. They work hard and do well at school. They have strong and loyal friendships and protect and love their siblings. They overwhelmingly attend school and yes, even enjoy it. They do the best they can in exams. They have never seen the inside of a police station and they never will. They do not carry guns or knives, or commit mindless acts of vandalism. They experiment with drugs and alcohol, but they don’t binge drink or spiral into drug abuse. They take their sexual health very seriously, but they also fall in love and lust and sometimes make mistakes. Most young people exhibit a profound and thoughtful sense of compassion and ambition, of decency and hope. They do, undoubtedly, posses character.
I wonder if we would feel comfortable singling out another social group and then arguing they are in “moral crisis”. Would we dare? Are those who terrorise their partners and children or people who are violently intolerant of others’ race, faith or sexuality in moral crisis? I would say yes!
Surely the critical question, as we engage with what is an important and necessary debate, is whose moral compass are we expecting our young people to adopt? Are we setting the right examples for today’s younger generation? Whose character are we asking young people to duplicate? Is it the values that allow 1 in 6 young people to witness domestic violence? Or the set of values that see up to 10,000 young people a year who go missing, never to be seen again? Is it the same set of values that mostly ignore the 16 percent of children who are neglected, abused and brutalized at some point during their childhood? Or the 500,000 young people being terrorized and bullied by a peer? Is it the grotesque child pornography which permeates our internet, but we adults fail to police? Or the shame of human trafficking and child prostitution? Are these the values we want our young people to adopt?
We confuse, demean and patronise our children when we ask them to be good, when they only need to look around for a moment for so many examples of how to be bad.
As with adults, there are many thousands of young people who need intensive care and whose moral compass is unacceptably skewed. The state has a significant part to play in developing values in children and young people, both in terms of setting public policy and implementing it, but also, and perhaps more immediately, by setting the right tone and acting as exemplars to our children and young people.
The development of “character” in our young people is profoundly important. Next to basic human rights that should be afforded to us all, it is perhaps the most critical set of life skills that parents, schools and communities can instil in our children and young people.
In an ideal world all families would have the capacity and skills to provide young people with a moral route map. Adults and family members would demonstrate character - or how to be good - by example. Young people would flourish, build stable and constructive relationships and skip off into a world marked by moral fortitude and emotional intelligence. But that is not the real world.
Beatbullying has worked with thousands of young people in the last eight years. In our experience about 1 in 30 young people are not “good” - a label I totally reject. We work with boys and girls raised in all sorts of family units whose behaviours need to be addressed using a new set of policy and practice instruments - not only out of compassion but to build civilized and functioning communities that are safe, just and equitable.
These instruments must focus on radically extending social and emotional education, but more importantly must substantially invest in developing, sustaining and building the emotional I.Q. of those 1 in 30. They must seek to equip these young people with the emotional tools to manage their impulses and consciences, to navigate conflict, to manage relationships with their peers, their families and authority figures, and most importantly how to manage their own fears, humiliations, joy and happiness.
We all know who these 1 in 30 are. We have met them. We think they are other people’s children, but sometimes they are our own children. They are serial bullies who use their physical strength and verbal power to threaten, dominate and intimidate others. They are often habitual truants and academic non-achievers or underachievers. They are narcissistic, self serving and often dishonest. They have an inability to control their anger or resolve conflict, which is always coupled with restricted emotional I.Q. and violent outbursts borne out of frustration and resentment.
They are invariably intolerant of other faiths, belief systems and moral codes. They objectify and commodify their bodies, their sexuality and material goods. Most, in our experience, have undetected or un-diagnosed learning or mental health difficulties.
These young people haven’t developed character because no one has shown them how to.
These 1 in 30 are always wounded, confused, and crippled by fear and self-loathing, irrespective of class, background, ethnicity or sexuality. Many witness domestic violence, or live with parents or carers that are addicts or have mental health problems. Many are victims of child abuse or neglect. Others are so ignored by their parents they can only find refuge in violence and bullying, eating disorders, self harm and social networking sites in which they can discuss their own death.
All of them, once you dismantle the bravado, hubris, aggression or silence, panic when faced with anger from another person and have no idea how to navigate a setback. They rarely express emotions and mostly recoil from being touched. They over-react, often aggressively to minor problems. They feel - often with good reason - constantly let down by other people. Humiliation or perceived humiliation makes them feel vengeful and isolated; for them, attack is always the best form of defence.
Can we make these young people “good”? Of course we can. But it is time consuming, immensely expensive, invariably unpopular and hugely complex in terms of practice and execution. It is the coalface - a place where adults need to get their hands dirty, despite the setbacks, the infinite frustrations and the fear of failure.
At Beatbullying we try in our own way to meet that challenge by running what we call Gateway programmes. These are intensive care programmes for the 1 in 30 young people we call “bad”. Over the course of many months and sometimes years we work with the same young people to understand the causes and consequences of their behaviour, both for themselves and others. They learn how to develop empathy and sympathy - often for the victims of their own violent, criminal and bullying behaviour - and also how to relate to and function with their peers, families and loved ones.
Beatbullying develops practical techniques for controlling violent impulses and managing anger with these young people. We empower them with the ability to exercise choice in their own behaviour. We introduce them to diversity and difference. We challenge them to work through their own fears and prejudices. We show them ways to look after and nurture their own bodies, understand their sexual identity and respect the sexuality of others.
Beatbullying are, if you like, morality surrogates. Where a parent, the school or the state ignores, let’s down, or abuses a young person, we step in. Beatbullying, like many other voluntary organisations, seeks to offer that young person an ethical framework upon which they may be able to construct a life. We successfully offer these young people a moral route map and school them in the social and emotional skills - in the basics, in character – to deliver young people the tools to be able to change and to see the worth in engaging with rights, respect and responsibility.
If we don’t school our most vulnerable young people - our 1 in 30 - in the art of courage, kindness, integrity, honesty, common purpose and community they will not and do not succeed. If we do not teach them how to process emotions, how to navigate anger, loss, fear, attraction and joy, they will not and do not thrive. For too long we as a society have not intervened in teaching the basics of character to many thousands of young people, nor have we set the right example. The state and public policy have not focused on the development of values in children and young people. There has been a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the perceived “moral crisis” of young people in general, and not enough focus on working with the 1 in 30 who genuinely do need intensive intervention.
More pressingly, if we do not intervene and educate these young people, they will not develop character. Character is the food of the soul; it provides emotional sustenance. Without it, our young people cannot be the best they can be. They cannot function, learn from and cope with all that life throws at them. In twenty-first century Britain that is not good enough.