Today’s tragic victim, tomorrow’s feral brat

July 1, 2009

Frankly, it’s distressing how illogical we are about cruelty to children. Remember the national spasm of grief when we saw that smudgy picture of Baby P: the blond curls, the wistful expression? We grieved like sentimental saps, gripped by the thought of the poor soul dying in agony, unloved and abused. And we hugged our own children tighter, congratulating ourselves that they would never experience anything like Peter’s brief, terrible existence. I did it; every mother did it. It was a kind of surreptitious mother porn.

And then we promptly switched off our brains to wait for the next harrowing death. Where was the outcry when we read of the thousands of children, some only 18 months older than Peter, who are excluded from primary school for bad behaviour? Nowhere to be seen.

Where was the special response to the evidence of biting, swearing, kicking and inappropriate sexual behaviour among infants – other than the usual litany of moans: it’s dreadful, isn’t it? An indictment of society. It has to be dealt with, punished. Those children must learn respect and the difference between right and wrong before they come to school. The parents must be told. And other children certainly shouldn’t have their education disrupted by that kind of thing.

If we were rational, of course, we would be moved to a different kind of outrage. But we aren’t. It is a plain fact that, while we emote for the Baby Peters and Brandon Muirs of this world – those who die in terrible circumstances at the hands of their parents – we are remarkably less sympathetic to the Peters and Brandons who survive long enough to get to school and to manifest the results of their terrible start in life. Somewhere, without any change in circumstances, pity has turned to antipathy; everyone’s tragic victim has become tomorrow’s feral brat.

According to research by The Times, revealed before this week’s Ofsted report, the number of children temporarily excluded from primary school rose by 14 per cent in the past year to 27,000. Of those 12,000 were under the age of 8.

But the really damning statistic for me is that more than 1,200 of the fixed-term exclusions from schools in England and Wales in 2007 involved children aged 4 and under. Dwell on that, mothers. Think about an average child of 4, its considerable needs, its curiosity, its innocence, its desire to laugh, its trust in adults.

Then understand that there are some infants of that age already so profoundly damaged by an absence of love and attention that many of their chances of participating fully in the world have probably already been taken away. Children who, according to Ofsted, don’t understand that adults are in charge or that no means no. Who have witnessed nothing but aggression at home, who see smack cooked up more often than sausages. That’s not me being emotional – that’s a fact.

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