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Boys with knives

pocket knifeLast week the lives of two Queensland families were ruined. One 12-year-old boy stabbed another, who died, in a playground before school started. One was buried over the weekend, and the other was refused bail when he was charged with murder. Both families are devastated. The school is in shock. It was a Catholic school. This has nothing to do with the intimacy of violence.

Fifty years ago a lot of teenage boys carried knives not as weapons but as tools. We all used pocket knives, to sharpen pencils, open tins and carve initials into desk tops. But they were a status object, too. They didn't get used in school fights, because disputes were sorted with fists — using a knife was not 'manly', and a boy's own mates would get stuck into him for being a coward if he pulled one.

Boys of the early '60s were far more likely to be scared of authority (headmasters with canes, dads with fists, police with boots and a lavish discretion on how to use them). Most boys looked down on 'crooks', and only a crim would use a knife. But 20 years ago, there was a lot of violence among the schoolkids my daughter mixed with, only we weren't aware of it: the media weren't running the issue, and parents weren't being alerted to it.

Why do schoolchildren use knives? As one year 12 student remarked online to Melbourne's The Herald Sun, 'in most schools kids don't bring knives or weapons to be seen as cool, but to scare off bullies. Lots of bullying goes on where one smartass in a pack of mates wants to make everyone laugh.' This group bullying, he said, wasn't picked up and managed by teachers.

Kids don't do their private jockeying for position under adult supervision. Research into playground behaviours and language among boys shows that the 'culture' of childhood hasn't changed much in 50 years: boys still work at their pecking order in the mob, pick cliques, and pitilessly dump on outsiders.

It's a tough boy's world and no amount of equality rhetoric makes any difference to the time-honoured put-downs and rambunctious activities that come with the hierarchical challenges which have been part of western, masculine society since we started noticing it.

Violence among children isn't new. Armed violence isn't either. On 14 September last year, Melbourne's The Age ran police statistics documenting a 45 per cent jump in Victoria in (admittedly small numbers of) children aged 10–14 who were using knives during criminal behaviour: 20 per cent of their victims were under 10. More of the older children and adults were carrying knives in public.

The government obediently provided greater search powers for police. A Deputy Police Commissioner said many young people were carrying knives 'for protection', not realising that this increased the risk of a confrontation — they should, he said, 'just walk away'.

Peer relations are an important part of children's development and a lot of academic time has been taken up in writing about it. Conflict resolution is an essential element of peer relations — indeed, it's the essential role of civil society.

Without prejudging the facts in this case, let us assume a knife was used to 'resolve' a conflict; the feelings caused by the behaviour of one that was designed to influence the other's behaviour, which in turn was prompted by each having different and incompatible goals. Where this happens among adults, a range of approaches are available, short of violence, from avoidance ('just walk away') to distraction ('there's the bell'); expressions of anger, or seeking social support, and (desirably) compromise if not capitulation.

It takes hard-earned maturity, or an enforced separation, and the presence or imminence of an external authority for either boy to 'walk away', when every cell of their psyche is demanding an explosive alternative. Even a man like my late father, the gentlest of men, experiences the un-blooded boy's rush of rage, swelling of humiliation, or surge of fear, and even such as my dad may lash out (he laid on with a cricket bat, which knocked the other boy unconscious) and, please God, not kill, but learn never, and how not, to lose control.

Whatever happened between these two tragic children, a boy's play is preparation for the man's life. Adolescence is a time of violent, primitive emotions, of play-acting but also of the most intensely lived reality, and of confrontations adults rarely see because it is played out in the privacy of childhood space. Boys' passionate assertion of relative worth and pecking order is developmentally necessary. That child's place in the society of his peers is, for that moment, a matter of life and death.

So let it be with the outcome. We have to be gentle with children whose judgment is not yet developed, whose experience of life is limited, who are learning. Like them, we must not rush to judgment on the life of the man to be who is, today, a boy in a Brisbane jail.

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates. 

Topic tags: moira rayner, stabbed, schoolboys, knives, schoolyard violence.Elliott Fletcher, St Patrick's College



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Existing comments

What a beautiful, intelligent and compassionate article. You have captured the truth beautifully. Thank you

Bernadette MIles | 23 February 2010  

Thank you Moira Rayner for this piece which includes each boy's perspective and in some way explains the awfulness of the whole issue.

Judy | 23 February 2010  

I am delighted by the broad scope of this article and take special pleasure in the paragraph which begins "Fifty years ago". At Kostka Hall in the 1940s I was one of many who often carried a knife and we used our knives in a playground game called Territory where we threw them from above into sandy soil. We did sharpen pencils, open tins and carve initials. My favourite knife had a blade for removing stones from horses hooves, another for stabbing pigs, and a sharp one for skinning rabbits or gutting fish for which purpose it did get used when I caught a garfish or two from Brighton Beach pier.I also used it to whittle twigs and small branches and to make a whistle.

The change now is not so much in the carrying of knives as it is in the purpose for doing so and in the social ethos which shaped our use of them

Gerry Costigan | 23 February 2010  

Thank you Moira for a balancing perspective to this tragic event. I hope the compassion and understanding of your article is given by the media and others to the child who must go before the courts.

Donna | 23 February 2010  

A key ingredient that's missing from this debate is the ready availability of the knives themselves...hideous examples of which can be seen at your local supermarket or 'reject shop' and ready to be bought for a pittance.

Store owners need to be drawn into the debate and to agree not to sell knives to young people, quering would-be purchasers.

Legislation might be needed to enforce that.

There has to be involvement on all sides...government, police, shopkeepers,schools and parents...all pushing the message that knives do not belong in the hands of young people...or adults out on the streets too. Simple signs on trains, trams and buses and at bus stops..."A knife is not the answer" "Don't travel with knives"

"Knives can lead to injury, death and jail".

TV and radio stations should be encouraged to carry such messages as community announcements.

Politicians, especially those facing elections, could also help by putting a public end to their denials that such threatening and growing problems even exist in their patches.

That's the real cutting edge we need to see!

Brian Haill | 23 February 2010  

The carrying of knives as weapons by young males in Australia is a legacy of multiculturalism. Until very recently, anybody - man or boy - who produced a knife in the play ground or broke a glass to use in a bar-room fight, was instantly branded a coward. Knives as weapons have entered Australia through a particular ethnic group who must, of course, according to the dictates of political correctness, remain nameless.

Sylvester | 23 February 2010  

I remember having the discussion on knives for protection with a scripture class in the 80s. I argued that it was foolish to carry a knife because there was a danger that in fear you might use it to hurt someone.

It was a long and interesting discussion. I don't know whether I persuaded any of them but, please God, I did and they are able to pass on the message to their own sons/daughters.

Margaret McDonald | 23 February 2010  

Does anyone remember the movie Smiley Gets a Gun? The precursor may have been Smiley Gets a Pocketknife! Moira is a very astute writer, Brian is 'off with the fairies'. Whilst it is OK to have the level of violence broadcast to children and (my pet hate) "caged' fighting to entertain patrons in hotels, we are on a one way street.

russell | 23 February 2010  

I would refer Moira to Richard Rohr's concept of boys' growth from childhood to manhood outlined in his book on male initiation, Adam's Return. It is a problem in modern western society that we allow boys to work out 'preparation for the man's life... in the privacy of childhood space'. What males especially need, Rohr would say, is a process of initiation within an adult society, supervised and governed by the society into which they want to gain admission as adults. This is the wisdom of traditional and aboriginal societies known by them for thousands of years. Many of our society's wild young men (and young women) have never had the benefit of such an initiation process.

John O'Donnell | 24 February 2010  

Moira, thank you for raising the bigger issues that 'bubble, bubble, toil and trouble' behind the headlines and media froth of such tragedies as Elliott Fletcher's stabbing death.

I face exactly what you are talking about every lunch hour in the playground at the College where I am priest-On-Campus three days a week.

I would just like to offer one observation - what you are talking about is an indication that as a society, we are failing to initiate our boys into the responsibilities that ae needed to 'tame' the primitive emotions into energy which the human family can use to continue progressing.The old rituals of initiating boys into the men that the tribe desperately needs for survival have disappeared, replaced by all the evils that a vacuum of goodness allows to infect a society with.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 24 February 2010  

Thank you Moira for placing elequently what I am sure a number have suspected on the present matter and many others lamentably like it. I work with the so called 'Gen Y' I see and hear about the bar room 'glassings' and such like. I am of the view that there has been a loss of conflict resolution skills. These skills are lacking in the home as they are in the school yard or the work place.

Rev Charles Vesely | 26 February 2010  

Moira, Just read this after being away. A very good, insightful piece. Geraldine Doogue

geraldine doogue | 27 February 2010  

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