Parents under fire

Here is a true story, and it took place in a perfectly middle
class home in a leafy London suburb. A mother, divorced and
bringing up her two children after an acrimonious divorce, was
attacked by her son, aged 13, a bright boy at a public school. They
were having a row about whose fault it was that the family broke
up. Instead of blaming himself, which many children do after
divorces, K started punishing his mother for driving away his very
glamorous and rich father who worked in television. It started with
abuse in public places – “look at you, you’re ugly, fat, just look
at you, yuk, don’t walk near me, don’t talk to me”.

Then he began to hit the younger child, a daughter. Finally one
day, he took a chair and went for his mother as she was pouring
boiling water into a cup. The water flew and he got burnt on his
hand. He knocked her out and went to school. She phoned me as a
friend after she had recovered – which took nearly three weeks –
and was hysterical, not knowing what to. This was outside her
world. The daughter of a vicar, she didn’t understand at all.
Eventually the boy went to live with his father and it is only now,
when he is in his twenties that he is rebuilding his relationship
with his mother. The bad news is that the daughter is now showing
signs of violence as she turns 14.

My son had a personal tutor in his school, a trusted man who was
supposed to help him with emotional and educational problems. We
soon found out the tutor had a drink problem. One day when we went
to see him, he turned up with bruises and cuts on his face and
arms. His son, a teenager, had beaten him up the night

You wonder how many such hidden tales there must be among
“respectable” people in the UK. The epidemic of autism is causing
real heartache but in some cases this label is used, you feel, to
help explain the violent behaviour of middle class children. The
problem is much worse inevitably, in families living with poverty,
hopelessness, addictions, failures, crime. One reason so many poor
lone mothers objected to and still detest home/school contracts and
punitive measures against the parents of delinquents is that they
themselves are perpetual victims of their aggressive children,
especially physically stronger young boys. Sometimes it is because
they can’t give the children money they demand, at other times it
is to do with truancy and misconduct in schools and on estates. Who
supports these mothers who may themselves have been victims of
domestic violence? Who is there to understand their fears?

We have many initiatives to encourage good enough parenting, which
New Labour thankfully supports. But our children across the classes
and races are today beyond our control in the most profound sense.
I do believe that the balance of forces has shifted dangerously as
a result of this rampantly free market society so that the best
parenting and the most appropriate schooling is still not enough to
combat media images and expectations, peer group pressures, and the
most destructive aspects of popular culture. Some children, are
driven, perhaps in spite of themselves, to antisocial and violent
behaviour as a result of this environment, the long-term effects of
which we will not know until it is too late.

I do believe that increasing numbers of ordinary children (by which
I mean children who do not have recognised mental or emotional
problems) are rougher, more inconsiderate, abusive and occasionally
violent today than in previous decades. Parents do not know how to
handle them and feel further victimised by society and the David
Blunketts of this world who blame them tacitly or directly for this
crisis. We need greater understanding, and humility too. It could
happen to any one of us as it did to my friend. And when it does
you quickly understand how grotesquely unfair it is to be held
solely responsible for the abuse you are suffering from the child
you brought into the world. It must make parents feel utterly
disconsolate and betrayed not to mention guilty, that it is all
their fault.

We need more supportive projects to enable these parents and their
children (who are still just that) to remake trust and bonds and we
must stop automatically blaming the parents for not bringing up
their children properly as if they have brought the punishment on
themselves. Enlightened thinking has moved society so we don’t
blame victims of rape and to examine the causes of crimes. This is
what victimised parents have a right to expect.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a writer and

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