I’ve been thinking about Social vs Personal Responsibility recently, and how the way we ‘blame’ can effect the way we deal with any problem.
This all stemmed from watching a documentary about the James Bulgar killings. A case which, from the very beginning fascinated me. If you don’t know - which I guess is a minority of you. - James Bulger was almost three when he was kidnapped away from his mother, and later found murdered on a near by railway track. It was later discovered that the perpetrators of this disturbing crime were two boys only aged 10. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables have since, understandably, been of intrigue for the British general public.
I remember it because I was of similar age to the two boys convicted of James’ murder. In the UK 10 years old is the age if criminal responsibility, so it was the first time in my life that I was able to watch a criminal trial being reported about and have the relative maturity and reliability to engage.
The one thing, however, that truly sticks in my mind are the adults attacking the police vans bringing the two boys to court. I remember feeling, even back then, that there was something wrong with this reaction to this crime. It was while watching this recent documentary that I was able to pinpoint the reason why,
With any crime or misdemeanour, we fundamentally want to blame it on someone or something, we want to hold someone accountable, and let them hold the responsabilith., and there are two real options open to us. Individual Responsibility or Social Responsibility. More often than not we chose to pick Individual Responsibility, and with cases with adults, this is usually the case. An adult will usually have had enough life experience to understand right from wrong and understand the consequences of their choices. If they choose to do something against what they know to be right, it is correct to hold them responsible.
Children, on the other hand, it's a wholly different matter. Yes, at the age of ten you can be held criminally responsible, but on many other matters, other people (mainly parents are legally responsible for making important decisions for you, because you are deemed to immature to make those decisions. You are criminally responsible because it is believed you know right from wrong by then. But where are those differentials learnt from? When we are say, 30s, or even in our 20’s our field of experience is vast enough and the foundations of our decision making wide enough that blame can be easily placed on our shoulders. But when we try and do this to people who's experience is smaller, we come across an issue.
You see, as well as blame we want to have motive. We want to know why. Most of the time, the motive is easy to come by with adults; sex, money, etc. But because a child’s experiences are limited and, and thought processes simple it is harder to find this. resulting in a gut reaction of an explanation. Often than not means ’evil’
This was certainly the case with the two boys who murdered James Bulger. The reason the scenes of adults attacking the polices vans unsettled me was that there was a general view, which persists today, that these boys were evil. But the word evil has never settled with me when it comes to talking about children. I've been working with children in different capacities for 25 years now. I've come across a number of difficult kids, kids that have been written off. Most of these kids, however, are not ’difficult’ once you scratch the surface and discover the reasons they are behaving the way they do. Often once you've done that they start becoming less difficult. ’Evil’ children are the same, we shouldn't be labelling them evil. Instead ,we should be scratching the surface and discovering the circumstances that lead to their deeds that caused their label of evil. More often than not, these circumstances lie on the shoulders of society.
If we are truly going to make radical changes to the ’kids gone wrong’ we need to be looking at the Societal Responsibilities in each case, and not just the individual. In no way am I saying a child should not be held accountable for his or her actions. It horrifies me that Robery Thompson and Jon Venables only got 8 years each, that was not long enough for either their punishment and rehabilitation, or full healing to take place within James Bulger’s Family. But sadly, we haven't yet addressed or even properly discussed in the 26 years since it occurred, what it was in these boys lives that lead them on a path to thinking that a pleasant activity to undertake while truanting was to kidnap and kill a two-year-old boy. It is only by doing that, that we can makes changes to try and ensure that things like that never happen again,