Bringing Up Baby – how do innocent babies become young offenders?

CYCJ’s Research Fellow Nina Vaswani reflects on new motherhood and questions how it is that some babies will one day become involved in youth offending.

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I’ve been very quiet over the past few months. I’ve been working away on an exciting new project – namely the ‘How to grow a 6 month-old baby without causing more harm than a trapped arm whilst wrestling on a babygro’ project. I’m pleased to say that I think we’ve got there. It’s been a whirlwind of nappies, feeds, cuddles, laughs, tears and a whole new repertoire of nursery rhymes. But as my mind turns to the impending end of my maternity leave and back to my original day-job this got me wondering: how do innocent wee babies grow up to become young offenders?

Working in youth justice for many years this is a question that I have often considered, but parenthood has brought it into sharp focus. You hope that you will try your best and that this will be enough to ensure that your child grows up to be a kind, caring, happy and fulfilled individual. I’m sure every parent, whatever their circumstances, wants the same for their child. But I’m aware that today’s society is still a very unequal place in which to raise a child. Quite simply, while every newborn baby is a blank slate and full of potential, unfortunately the world in to which they are born means that, sadly, some babies are more equal than others.

Consider some of the factors that are associated in some way with youth offending. ‘Blame the parents!’ is a refrain often heard in relation to young offenders. And on some level it is true, for example certain parenting styles, such as an overly harsh approach, have been identified as a risk factor for youth offending. Parents are also crucial role models for their young children, for good or ill. They can model communication skills, help-seeking skills, how to manage conflict, sharing and caring and many other skills that help young people navigate the path to adulthood. But on the flip side, having a convicted family member increases the likelihood of a young person becoming involved in offending, as discussed at CYCJ’s Breaking The Cycle conference on intergenerational offending last November. Furthermore, a substantial proportion of young people in prison have been looked after and/or accommodated as a child – suggesting that, for whatever reason, their parents were unable to provide them with the care and protection needed to remain at home.

But how many of those parents were also vulnerable, or lacked positive role models themselves, or had even been in care too? The effects of trauma, loss, abuse and neglect can be felt throughout subsequent generations and can even be passed on as behavioural patterns or parenting styles.  And while mental health and addiction issues can strike anyone, they are more likely to affect those who have reduced resilience due to a multitude of adverse life experiences, such as those people who have been in care as children.  I’m sure every parent wants the best for their child, but the already difficult task of raising a child must be so much harder when you don’t have positive parenting experiences to draw upon, or face additional challenges yourself.  It’s not possible to change the past but unless all of us, as practitioners, researchers, policymakers and society as a whole, find ways to more effectively identify and treat the trauma of abuse, neglect and loss, and to support the most vulnerable parents better, the cycle will never be broken.

Families can also impact on other factors. In the youth justice field we know that positive engagement with education is a protective factor against youth offending. Yet by the time some children start school they are already facing additional challenges in their ability to engage with and enjoy learning. For example, it has been observed that children from the most disadvantaged families can face what is termed the ‘30 million word gap‘, which in essence is the exposure to 30 million fewer words than their peers by the age of three. This gap translates into lower language test performance by age nine. While it’s a big jump from reduced language skills to young offender, research has shown that the frustration that this causes can result in behavioural issues in the classroom, marginalisation and ultimately disengagement from school. It’s maybe no surprise then that it is estimated that between 50 and 60% of young offenders suffer from speech, language and communication problems. Why does this word gap exist? The authors of the word gap study note that the child’s vocabulary mimicked the parents’ vocabulary, so parental education and communication skills will likely play a part. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that while there are always young people who are better educated than the previous generation, education levels often run in families and limit social mobility. Again, it is important that the cycle is broken and that education is accessible to all.

This leads us on to poverty and inequality, as there is a strong link between education level and earnings. While official child poverty rates at their lowest level for decades, more than one-in-five children in Scotland are still living in poverty and material deprivation (children who have to go without basic necessities) is on the increase.  Babies need very little in the way of material things, mostly just love, cuddles and their basic physical needs met, but having some disposable income can reduce family stress, provide opportunities and can help broaden horizons. A few years ago, while working in youth justice in Glasgow, I was struck by the fact that many of the most vulnerable young men rarely left their immediate neighbourhood, let alone explored the many opportunities that this city has to offer, such as leisure centres or museums, or ventured further afield.  Seeing the wonder on the boys’ faces when social work staff organised a trip to Kelvingrove art gallery, and the joy that a simple sighting of a grey squirrel could bring is something that I will never forget. While many activities and experiences are not costly, can families who are struggling to make ends meet, or who are working long hours to provide for their children, find the time or the money to travel to and participate in such activities? Parenting is hard enough without the added stress of worrying about how to put food on the table.

Again it’s a huge leap from not going to music lessons, or visiting the cinema, to becoming a young offender. Many young people growing up in strained circumstances will never become involved in offending, although a lack of things to do and the associated boredom was cited by young people in our stakeholder survey as a common reason for youth offending. But can these restricted life experiences also affect cultural capital and aspirations in the longer term? Last year I wrote about a chronic loss of hope for the future among young men in prison. Many of these young men believed from a young age that prison was part of their predetermined future. Hope and ambition for the future requires a sense of belief in oneself, as well as the necessary skills and social and financial capital required to attain one’s goals. Lacking positive familial role models and education experiences and facing tangible and perceptual obstacles to success, no wonder these young men saw the prison walls in their future, rather than viewing the world as full of exciting opportunities.

None of this is new information of course and government policies and strategies such as GIRFEC and Preventing Offending are cognisant of these factors and aim to address these issues so that Scotland becomes ‘the best place in the world to grow up’. There are no quick fixes for some of society’s most intractable problems but while so many children still grow up in such difficult circumstances the cycle of hardship, deprivation, trauma and offending in families will be much harder to break. At the very least we as professionals, and as society, need to ensure that families are supported and that every child has an equal chance in life.

So back to my own wee family. On paper my child has been given a good start in life. I recognise that my partner and I have been incredibly lucky with our experiences in life so far and I hope that this might help us in our parenting endeavours. Still this is no guarantee that we’ll get it right. We as parents will undoubtedly make mistakes and we certainly can’t protect our child from all of the twists, turns and obstacles that life has to offer. Who knows what will happen in any of our futures – we can only try to provide the right conditions in which our child can grow and develop. Anyway, I’m sure I’m jumping the gun a bit. Today this little baby’s hope and ambition for the future is simply to achieve a successful navigation of carrot from hand to mouth. We are working on it!

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