OECD (Children)The international Organisation for Economic Development (OECD), has produced a report on comparative rates of teenage pregnancy, drunkenness and young people not in education, employment or training (neets). Doing Better for Children makes some interesting observations about the effectiveness of spending on children and teenagers in different countries and poses some interesting questions. The Guardian has provided a useful summary of its main points (despite not relating these to the Children’s Society‘s Good Childhood Inquiry I blogged about earlier in 2009).

Set that alongside another report of a survey conducted by the NSPCC and Bristol University and a picture begins to grow. Of the 1,353 teenage girls and boys questioned across the UK, nearly 90% of girls aged 13 to 17  – and a similar number of boys – had been in an intimate relationship. But consider the following observations as summarised by the Guardian:

  • 25% of girls had suffered physical violence, including being slapped, punched or beaten by their boyfriends.
  • Of 91 young people questioned at length, one in six of the girls said that they had been pressured into having sex and one in 16 claimed to have been raped. Others who took part in the study said that they had been pressured or forced to kiss or intimately touch their boyfriends.
  • A small minority of the boys – one in 17 – reported being pressured or forced into sexual activity and almost one in five suffered physical violence in a relationship.
  • Many of the girls said they felt they had to put up with the abuse because they felt scared or guilty, or feared they would lose their boyfriend.
  • The NSPCC said that having an older boyfriend placed young girls at a higher risk of abuse, with three-quarters of them saying they had been victims.
  • Young women from a family where an adult had been violent towards them were also at greater risk.
  • For boys, having a violent group of friends actually made it more likely that they would become a victim, or be a perpetrator of violence, in a relationship.

Apparently, the report concludes that schools need to raise awareness of relationships where there is harmful, controlling and abusive behaviour. The Guardian report ends with the following:

Diane Sutton, head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, said: “It is shocking to find so many young people view violence or abuse in relationships as normal. Boys and girls are under immense peer pressure to behave in certain ways and this can lead to disrespectful and violent relationships, with girls often bearing the brunt. Young people need to learn to respect each other.” She added that parents and schools could perform a vital role in teaching children about loving and safe relationships and what to do if they are suffering from violence or abuse.

Not suprisingly, these rather disturbing findings got plenty of air-play today and I picked up on an interview on BBC Radio 5Live in which a policeman was describing the teenage behaviour he regularly meets on the streets. He stated that it would take generations to change behaviour and the attitudes that lead young people to behave in such ways that betray low self-esteem and immaturity in relationships. He was followed by a woman claiming that if teenage lads were cuddled and hugged more, they wouldn’t need to demand such affection from girls – which she clearly saw as a form of inappropriate transference.

JordanI thought this was quite interesting. Not only do we live in a highly sexualised society in which we have young girls saying on television that their goal in life is ‘to be like Jordan‘ (Katie Price, the glamour model best known for her dysfunctional relationships and pneumatic breasts) – ‘famous’ – but we also grow our children to be suspicious of all adults, to fear for their safety and to avoid touch. Now, this might be delicate and contentious, but let’s speculate about a couple of the possible contributors to this state of affairs:

1. I have vivid memories of being upset at primary school and being hugged by a teacher and sat on the lap of another teacher while she read a story to the class. I was six years old and I was grateful. That could not happen today. I recently heard a teacher describe on the radio the problems of being in a classroom with (possibly) one other classroom assistant when a child has an accident or needs to go to the loo. How can they cope when the child has to be accompanied by two adults and there is no one left to look after the class? Why be accompanied by two adults? Because we have now decided that no adult can be trusted with a child alone and that legal protection demands suspicion.

And what does this sort of arrangement – brought in for very good reasons in the wake of serious child abuse cases – do to the way our growing children view the world, adults, normality and relationships? All adults are to be fundamentally suspected of being deviant? Nobody can be trusted – or nobody should be trusted? And is this sort of arrangement really for the protection of children from sexual harm, or is it simply to provide the employers from legal redress or suspicion in the light of any allegations of such abuse? The distinction matters.

Lost Icons2. Does the lack of touch offered to children create a later unconscious craving for touch/affection that is then satisfied by ‘intimate’ relationships that are both immature and premature? Rowan Williams touched on this in his powerful critique of our society’s view of children in Lost Icons and I picked it up in my own book Finding Faith. Is the woman on the radio right to surmise that children/teenagers are increasingly seeking intimacy because they lack affection at home, never get touched appropriately by other human beings and are only given sexualised models of relating by our dominant culture? And is this particularly the case for boys who have no idea how to become men because there are no respect-worthy role models in their home?

This is sensitive stuff. But I worry that a society shaped by an antipathy to potential abuse does not necessarily create a healthy positive view of relationships. Maybe this is yet another example of the law of unintended consequences. It might be that we have no alternative but to protect the few by condemning the many. But, I wonder if there really are links between the findings of the OECD report, the conclusions of the NSPCC report and the observations of our own eyes as we wonder how this can be turned round in future generations.

Perhaps we need a wider public debate about this. In the meantime, … answers on a postcard?