• By Michael Little
  • Posted on Monday 27th August, 2007

All the terrors of parenthood – counting the ways

The predictable public, press and political reaction to the murder of Rhys Jones (Will UK politicians get the message on child murder? – As if! 20 August 2007) put me in mind of the poet and novelist Blake Morrison's book As If, which uses the murder of two-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool in 1993 as the key to an exploration of childhood and how English society views children."On my travels I carry with me a passage from the book that evokes so well parents' fears for their children. I use it when the people I am working with show signs of forgetting that the children they are paid to support are just like their own. Here's an extract. (It follows Morrison's account of his son's survival of meningitis.)""The terror – my terror – never left. As my son grew bigger, so the terror grew bigger. The chief meaning of his life was the likelihood of losing it. Danger was all I saw, and I could see it everywhere. He'd wake and want to climb out of his cot, but get his head stuck in the bars, strangling himself, or fall awkwardly over the side, breaking his neck. We'd have forgotten to flick the switch up on one of the plug sockets, and he'd dip his wet finger in. He'd squeeze under a bedroom sash window, and plummet onto the concrete below. He'd drown headfirst in the nappy bucket. He'd find his way to the bottles and packets under the kitchen sink, the bleach, the mouse poison, that unlabelled bottle from who knows where, the contents of which turn out, at the inquest, to be paraquat. Now he's out the back door, face down in the garden pond, or being stung by a bee (that allergy we didn't know about) or climbing inside the chest in the garage, the disused freezer with the self locking lid. No, it's the front door he's through, on to the road, beneath the reversing furniture van, the refuse lorry, in pursuit of his merrily bouncing ball. I pull him clear and teach him to stay on the pavement, a safe place until the day a careering joyrider, or police car in pursuit, mounting the kerb ...""Time to eat: what shall it be? A fishbone in the gullet, the chip-pan whose handle he reaches for (boiling oil, 80 per cent first degree burns), or the Brazil nuts (another allergy we didn't know about) swelling in his throat? Now he is playing safely in his bedroom, the worst place to be when fire breaks out downstairs or when the giant elm we meant to show to the tree surgeon topples on that part of the house. A drive after lunch? A pity, I didn't remember the safety belt or the child protection lock on the offside rear door; a pity I let him lie on the shelf in the Range Rover, beside the paneless window (broken by thieves last week, meant to get it fixed), never thinking that at eighty of the motorway the force, as in an aeroplane, would suck him out."The author goes on -- conjuring up dangers that could take his son's life on a family holiday, on the school sports field, on a motobike as a teenager -- not to mention the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. Finally he concludes, "So many ways, let me count the ways, bizarre, banal, by fire or water, in the air or under the earth. And all this suppose we are kind to our son - haven't beaten him overmuch about the head, starved him, locked him in a room in his own shit, abandoned him after birth in the grass by a river or down a rubbish chute."From As If by Blake Morrison (Granta Books, 1998), pp 53-55Also among my travel papers is a sort of poem given to me by Ann Hagell, co-author with Michael Rutter and Henri Giller of the book Anti-Social Behavior by Young People (Cambridge University Press, 1998). She proposed it as a summary of what we know about young offenders following an earlier moral panic about UK youth crime.Sad not badThey are children not adults who neither live alone nor offend alone.Crime serves a purpose for them.Justice should be done, but we shouldn't forget their needs.There are no easy solutions,but anything that works considers the whole child and not just their problems.I wonder what are the chances of getting this little piece onto the message systems that keep politicians 'on message'?

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