It’s been a bad week for knife crime in our cities and every time I hear that another teenager has died from a stabbing I shudder and think ‘there but for the grace of.’ It is every parent’s nightmare that their child will get involved in a fight, defend a mate, or just be walking in the street when they get attacked. All 3 of my boys had been mugged when they were teenagers – it was expected almost a rite of passage for living in London. But one night it was different.
It was midnight when my 17-year-old son came into my bedroom. I knew something was wrong – he looked really shaken up. “I got mugged tonight, mum.” I tried not to panic, despite the sharp pain in the pit of my stomach. I had been here before; although we live in the leafy suburbs of north London, I knew that it wasn’t necessarily safe. Are you OK?” I asked anxiously.
“Yeah,” he said, “just some scrapes and bruises. But this time they pulled a knife.”
I can’t describe the feelings that went through me the instant he said that word. Horror. Rage. An overwhelming urge to grab my son – a 6ft rugby prop – and somehow stuff him back into my womb. A knife! The word “knife” has become, for many parents, like the word “cancer” or “terrorist”. The reports of teenage deaths from knife attacks have made it so. If I am honest, knife attacks on teenagers was something that happened to other people in the news. Not to my children, and not to people we know.
“Tell me what happened,” I said, in the calmest voice I could muster, trying to black out images of what could have been.
He and two friends had been walking home on a summer’s weekday night when three youths approached them. One of them took him to the side and, pulling out a knife, said, “If you want to go home tonight, give me your phone.” My son knew the phone was not worth any injury, and gave it up. Despite this, the mugger threw him to the ground and kicked him, but did leave without using the knife.
“When it happened I just froze,” he said. “It was as if I was watching it all happen on a TV screen. I couldn’t do anything. It was only after a few kicks and punches that I realised that I was the victim. I’m incredibly angry, but I also know that I was smart and lucky that nothing worse happened because I keep reading about those kids who were not so lucky.”
“The problem,” he continued, “is that there is nothing you can do. These punks are out there with knives and we just don’t have a choice, and they know it. Nobody I know carries a knife, but sometimes it makes you think…” This was the anger talking; he and I both knew that he would never carry a knife. But his anger, frustration, and humiliation were incredibly acute.
Our children are adapting to the dangers of City life. Teenagers are aware of the situation, more so than us, and many of them, especially at night, plan their routes accordingly. They have coping strategies should the worst happen. Said one boy: “I have two phones, so I can give them a phone that doesn’t have my sim card with all my numbers on it,” and another said “I never use white headphones as they are a dead giveaway that you have an iPod.” And a third: “I always keep smaller change in my pocket and I hide my wallet.” Interestingly, I remember doing that in New York back in the ’70s.
The dangers for teenagers have shifted. My mother was also concerned about my safety, but her worries were different. She warned me about reefers and the white slave trade. “Don’t take any cigarettes without tips,” she would say, lighting her Senior Service. “It might be a reefer, and before you know it you will wake up in a harem in the Middle East.” Yes she really did say this! Our reality in the seventies was very different to the one our children face and we never really had to develop the coping strategies that they do.
As a parent, our first reaction is to wrap our kids in cotton wool and never let them out of the house. But clearly this is not practical. Risk is essential – it is part of life. So, we move into mentor mode, and begin to discuss prevention with them. We talk about street crime, what to do to avoid it, what to do if approached, how to react with intelligence rather than with hormones or emotion, the “easy decision” of choosing to give up your phone, iPod, wallet – anything rather than your life. In the event, my kids seem to be better versed and more rational than we could have possibly imagined. But then they have thought about it, talked about it, rehearsed it. We didn’t .
But if we cannot really help them with prevention, what can we do? How can we provide real, useful help? The fact is that many teenagers do not have a clue as to what to do if someone they are with suffers a serious injury. What to do if they come across someone who has been stabbed? Had a fit? Or taken a substance that is toxic. We hope they will never be in a situation when they will need to call on these skills. But in an emergency situation knowing what to do can make the difference between a minor accident turning into a major one and in the worst case scenario, between life and death.
For details of first aid courses in your area or specific Save a Mate Courses call 0208 445 8998 or go to www.safeandsound.uk.net