From babies to bams

You know you’re in trouble when your nursery school teacher thinks you’re heading for jail – and there’s an 85% chance she’s right. That’s the grim statistic from a study where nursery teachers predicted which of their little charges would eventually face criminal charges.

Started in 1972, the Dunedin Study tracked the children into adulthood, comparing ‘at risk’ infants with the control group.

The staff proved depressingly adept at picking the bad apples. By 21, the ‘at risk’ group were more than twice as likely to have two or more criminal convictions; almost three times more likely to have committed violent offences; and about five times more likely to have assaulted their partners.

There is plenty of other evidence to suggest that early risk indicators are easy to spot. The Marshmallow Test is the most entertaining. In this classic study, a child is led into in a room by a researcher. There’s a single marshmallow on a plate. The researcher tells the child she has to nip out for a moment: the child can eat the marshmallow; but, if they hold off eating the marshmallow till the researcher gets back, they’ll get two marshmallows.

Naturally, the researchers watch through a one-way window, in stitches. The children either gobble up the marshmallow right away; nibble it in the hope the researcher won’t notice; or hop from foot to foot, desperately trying not to give in to temptation.

The serious part of the test is about ‘deferred gratification’: the ability to imagine a better future and plan your actions around it. The researchers tracked the children into adolescence. Yes, you guessed it. The educational attainment and life chances of the children who display self-control are way better than the instant pleasure-seekers. (See vimeo for a hilarious modern re-make.)

So early behaviour patterns and learning difficulties foreshadow problems that are more difficult (and costly) for society to tackle in later life. Not surprisingly, such ‘at risk’ groups tend to have the least schooling, the lowest employment and the biggest health problems. Generally, they also receive the highest state benefits.

But the central question isn’t just about education. It’s about the child’s ‘emotional intelligence’ and mental wellbeing too. Generation after generation, poor parenting and harsh, erratic discipline are imbibed with our baby milk to create a thumping hangover for the whole of society.

The evidence suggests it’s a failure to develop human empathy early in life which raises the risk of anti-social behaviour. Mixed with a lack of skills for understanding the world – and for finding a place and purpose in our society – it’s a poisonous cocktail for any kid.

Indeed, when a screaming toddler assaults your ears on every supermarket trip, your own experience may give these academic insights the smack of real-life truth. However, the tiny middle-class tyrants we see torturing their red-faced parents probably only grow into needy greedy adults with an overblown sense of entitlement. It’s the small, neglected children we don’t see or hear in public who should worry us most. Here’s why.

In the real world, the destiny of a given child isn’t set in playgroup. As they grow up, children drift in and out of the risk of delinquency. Similarly, we can’t say that every jailbird is just a poor little starling who hasn’t learned how to fly. This would be to ignore the system of rewards and punishments that are built into our welfare, health and justice industries. Some people, quite rationally, work that system for what they can – and can’t – get away with. It also obscures the reality that children who live without human decency can become adults who act without human decency. For the safety of wider society, we do need powerful preventive measures and appropriate punitive reactions.

Poverty is the core risk profile for many of these social ills. But so is neglect. Across the social spectrum, we can’t forget that modern society creates its own difficulties in parenting. See the satellite dish that signals 24-hour TV on the poorest council estate. Consider the middle-class home and SUV that makes full-time mortgage slaves of both Mum and Dad. And what about the good old ‘stiff upper lip’ and emotional distance of the fee-paying boarding school? In different ways, our culture makes it easier for parents and children to become disconnected.

The conclusion isn’t earth-shattering: good parents and good nurseries make the world a better place. It may strike you as airy-fairy liberal-leftie cliché or as hoary old Tory platitude, newly tricked up for ‘Big Society’. But, if you’re tempted to dismiss this ‘bumph’ about emotional intelligence, let’s just look again at literacy.

In America, reading scores from 8 year old children are used to plan the ‘delivery’ of prison services a decade down the line. Isn’t that shocking? (The tests don’t indicate whether any particular child will wind up in jail. It’s just that, in aggregate, illiteracy proves a good proxy for later criminality.)

So, perhaps you won’t be so startled to discover that 60-70% of our prison population has a reading age lower than the average 10 year old. Especially if you already know that 20-25% of the Scottish population is reckoned to be functionally illiterate.

But, what I think will surprise most people is the scale of the growth in Scotland’s criminal justice industry. If our economy grew at the rate of our prison population, we’d be China.

Scotland’s prison population has expanded by about 33% over the past decade. We now lock up nearly 3 times as many people as we did in the 1950s and 1960s. In 2009, the proportion of our population we sent to prison was double that of Northern Ireland. And, by 2018, the Scottish Government predicts we’ll imprison 25% more. Are you shocked yet?

Most of the other stats are scarily predictable: 95% of inmates are men, with the biggest chunk being banged up for good old-fashioned violence. Another big chunk is related to drugs. If I read the stats right, sentencers also seem more inclined to put people in jail rather than use bail and alternative justice.

Last year, the total bill was close to £1.5 billion. But here’s the rub: the Scottish Prison Service faces a 22% cut.

How can we possibly square this circle? Certainly not by simply banging the cell door shut after crimes are committed. Progressive thinkers believe there’s a huge role for new forms of effective sentencing, such as restorative justice. But that’s still a post-hoc solution, when the damage is already done to victim and perp.

The real ‘crime’ happens much, much earlier – especially with Scotland’s world-beating and wife-beating record in violence. This doesn’t start at the flashpoint of alcohol-fuelled aggression, domestic argument or sectarian drivel. It begins before school, maybe even before birth.

But, in an age when the ‘short, sharp shock’ is likely to be economic, the real argument is financial.

The Nobel Prize-winning economics professor James Heckman has calculated that, in a human life, the only real return on public investment happens in this crucial ‘early years’ phase. After that, everything else is an expensive palliative. More to the point, Heckman reckons that every £1 of public money invested in the ‘early years’ can save us spending £7 in healthcare, justice and welfare later.

Scotland is a small innovative country facing a big financial hurdle. We won’t get over it without breaking the cycle of harm and deprivation; without creating a culture of positive parenting; without boosting both nursery funding and the status of ‘early years’ professionals. Current plans show we still intend to spend less on the ‘early years’ than jail-time. If we don’t start to shift our priorities big-time, we all should be locked up.

A version of this article previously appeared in Scotland’s national newspaper, The Scotsman.

“Bams” illustration by Jonathan Gould