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Victorian England Was Better Than We Are at Handling Delinquent Kids

For researchers studying juvenile delinquency, the Victorian era has become a model of how to mold children who are on a path toward self-destruction into productive adults.

For most of us, Victorian England evokes Charles Dickens, gothic fortresses, nobility and, alas, chamber pots. But for researchers studying juvenile delinquency, the Victorian era has become a model for how to mold children who are on a path toward self-destruction into productive adults. Starting in the 1850s, children who had committed crimes in Victorian England were usually sent to reformatories or industrial schools, where they learned a trade rather than serving time.

The results are hard to deny, according to new research published in the book Young Criminal Lives. “Only 22 percent of children who were in reformatories and industrial schools committed crimes in their adult lives following release — and only 2 percent committed more than one crime after release,” writes author Barry Godfrey of the University of Liverpool. “Today, 40 percent of juvenile offenders in England and Wales re-offend within just the first 12 months of their release from custody.”

Reformatories were far from perfect at the turn of the century. Some engaged in abusive disciplinary practices — birching, caning, deprivation of food and clothing — and many children suffered sexual and physical abuse. We’ve come a long way since Victorian England, and there’s no need to go back there.

But we can still learn much from Victorian reformatories. These institutions focused on teaching children a trade, rather than punishing them for past crimes. The Stockport Industrial School raised a generation of textile workers, Godfrey writes. The Bradwall Reformatory taught kids to work in agriculture. Both institutions took great pains to arrange jobs for their graduates, and many former students were not shy about showing their gratitude. In his research, Godfrey found that industrial schools kept in close contact with their former students, and often exchanged fond letters even years after the students had moved on.

Godfrey suspects that the secret to Victorian success, especially when it came to avoiding reconviction, was the era’s emphasis on employing children who had committed crimes rather than punishing them, and treating these troubled children like family even after they had matured into productive adults.

On paper, that’s also the philosophy behind U.S. juvenile detention centers and so-called “youth prisons.” American law recognizes the concept of parens patriae — that the state has the responsibility to act as a parent for troubled youth. But in reality, the 80 youth prisons that still exist in the United States are large, remote institutions that are run much like adult prisons, with locked doors, solitary confinement, and a staff of prison guards. Studies have shown that at-risk teens need stable relationships, according to Marc Schindler, former director of Washington DC’s juvenile justice agency. “And it’s absolutely impossible to establish that in a large, anonymous, coercive institution where there’s always violence going on,” he says.

For the juvenile justice system, the implications of Godfrey’s work are clear. Children who break the law are less likely to do it again (and more likely to turn their lives around) if we take a page from Victorian England’s book and start providing them with opportunities to attend high school and college or learn a trade — all while surrounded by caregivers who are more like parents and less like prison guards.

But this research is also a wakeup call for parents who prefer harsh discipline to constructive criticism. An enormous study of 160,000 children recently demonstrated that kids who are spanked behave worse in the long-term, and research has shown that yelling at children can adversely affect their development. Meanwhile, the authoritarian parenting style (“my house, my rules”) has been panned by virtually every study on the subject as a rotten way to raise kids. Evidence is mounting that running your home like a prison is not only emotionally exhausting — it’s simply not the best way to keep your kids under control.

Perhaps it’s time we all hearken back to Victorian England. Toilets may have ousted chamber pots; bedtime may go smoothly without Dickens, and your suburban house need not be terraced. But when your kids give you a hard time, consider acting like an “industrial school parent”. The best answer is usually to respond with love, patience, and constructive critiques. And keep your troublemakers busy. Teach them a trade (or how to build a Lego spaceship). It sure beats turning your living room into a youth detention center.