It is one thing to gossip nostalgically in a bar or across the dinner table about how much things have changed — and for the worse — since we were children growing into adolescence, but it can raise serious questions when those unreliable memories seem to be finding their way into Government policy. So Prime Minister Tony Blair’s words at the launch of the government's new Respect Zones initiative warrant a degree of scrutiny. "When I was growing up," he said, "anti-social behaviour wasn't a concept in people's minds. That's not to say that people weren't doing bad things — they were. It’s just it was a completely different order of problems that we had to deal with in this country, and every other country of a similar type around the world."With this level of generalization somewhere in the leader's mind, the British government has promised to take a tougher stance towards anti-social behavior — only to be told by its critics that the latest Respect initiative is not tough enough. Yet in nearly every respect, the analysis is equally wrong-headed. And in most respects the policies underpinned by it are misplaced. It is certainly true that anti-social behavior was not a popularized concept when Prime Minister Blair was growing up. The term has come from academia to define a broad range of mischiefs including fidgeting, lying and cheating. At some points in life they are commonplace and typical; it is when they last through several developmental stages or occur as a developmental aberration that they become a problem. So it is not uncommon for a child to steal a few pounds from his mother's purse, but it is rare and disturbing to steal at school or from shops or neighbors. Similarly, it is unusual to come across a child who lies continually through childhood and into adulthood.Forty years ago, we talked about our children being naughty, very naughty or delinquent. In a more recent, more supportive and some might say insightful age, we talked about 'troubled' and 'troublesome' children, a terminology that suggests potential causes of anti-social behavior too often ignored in today's debates.Nor is it altogether true that the prevalence of 'doing bad things' is of a different order. There is evidence from the Institute of Psychiatry, a leading international research center on child and adolescent mental health, that levels of anti-social behavior have increased over the last 30 years. But this rise is not explained by a "small number of very dysfunctional families where the kids are not being properly brought up," as Mr Blair went on to claim in his speech. It is recorded among 'ordinary' families across society like mine or his. We do not know why this type of low level anti-social behavior is rising, and there is nothing in the respect agenda to help us deal with it. The obvious candidates are the stress now placed on children as a result of changing family structures and living patterns, and living in a less tolerant society. Hyperactivity has risen only marginally in the last 30 years, but hyperactive children are now identified and dealt with as an inconvenience in a way they were not when the Prime Minister was growing up. Criminal behavior is more difficult to quantify. By some estimates crime is declining after a century of increase. At times, the government is happy to boast about these data. The opposition can usually find a reason to dispute the figures.However the evidence is presented, there is little to suggest that antisocial behavior by an ostracized ‘hard core,’ is increasing. But tackling the perceived rise in crime has justified a decade of bandwagoning, ineffective or unproven laws, initiatives and restrictions, all tending to confirm in the mistaken idea that there is an escalating problem.
Contrary to what the Prime Minister suggests, it is certainly not true that problems in the UK are the same as in other countries around the world. When Dutch researchers apply the measures of low level anti-social behavior used in this country, they find the trend is little changed. Why should the behavior of English but not Dutch children be declining? Again we do not know, although the difference in inequalities of wealth between the two countries might be a factor. In the Netherlands there are fewer poor people, fewer very rich people and lower levels of anti-social behaviour. Reducing stress on children, for example by easing up on school testing, adjusting the work-life balance or by helping society to become more tolerant of children and impairments to development — these are all things politicians can influence. They can also tackle inequalities of wealth — the one area where progress has been made (albeit too slowly). But these potential remedies are difficult and less popular than a 'respect agenda' that casts aspersions always on other people's children.Particularly irritating to science is the failure properly to evaluate any other of the initiatives that have been introduced during the last decade. Policy makers seem so sure they know the nature of the problem, its potential causes and the effectiveness of their solutions that they seldom bother to commission anything more than the flimsiest assessment. Sound research, alas, often requires more time than the election cycle will allow.The truth of the matter is we don't know much about any of the things the Prime Minister and his civil servants - or many of their critics - so confidently pronounce upon. A little less action and a little more finding out should be the order of the day. Michael Little is Director of the Social Research Unit at Dartington, which has a long history of applying research on child development to policy and practice.