17 February 2008

'Bring back the clip around the ear'

My late Dad's favourite threat to my brother and me was 'I'll give you a good clip in the ear'. He never carried out the threat because he led by example. When we grew up we used to kid him about it.

I thought of this when reading the item below from Jenny McCartney's column in today's Sunday Telegraph. I've emphasised Jenny's point about children learning from observing adults.

Fire crews are regularly facing violence and abuse when they turn up to extinguish a fire, it emerged last week. Youths are even making hoax calls in order to lure firemen into a situation in which they can be attacked.

The situation for undertakers is only marginally better. John Harris, a funeral director in London's East End, said that drivers are regularly overtaking and cutting in on horse-drawn funeral processions, and that on one occasion children threw stones at the horses.

This represents not only the disintegration of ordinary respect, but that of the force that promotes it: the invisible web of social taboo, which children sense by observing adults. When I was growing up in Northern Ireland, many such taboos revolved around drink and generosity: I perceived, for example, that among adults it was bad form to drink noticeably more alcohol when the drink was free than you generally would if you were paying for it. It was also mildly shameful to exclude anyone from the offer of a cup of tea.

My father grew up in a tough working-class area of West Belfast, in which it would have been unthinkable for children to attack firemen or stone a funeral procession - not least because they would have been punished by any adult in sight, and later by their own parents. The right of any adult to discipline within reason any badly behaved child was not questioned. Now that such confident interference is the one thing that is considered taboo, it appears that all the others are melting away.

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