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  • When you think of the word 'innocence', what do you think of? Do you think of children, who know only love and kindness, protected from the violent and cruel world outside? Do you think of the absence of evil, of a world without wrongdoing, pain or suffering? I know that's what I used to think innocence was, in my younger days. But even back then I'm not sure I believed in it. Certainly, I wasn't 'innocent' when I was young.

    There are many times I've behaved less than honourably in my life, but the first I can remember was in the second or third year of primary school, (I must have been about 6 or 7,) when I absent mindedly started drawing on the desk I shared with another boy. I can't remember his name, so let's call him Jim. So the teacher, Mrs Dickinson I think her name was, looks up and sees the desk covered in indelible scrawls, the ink ingrained in the wood, and abruptly stops what she's doing to pay attention to Jim and myself. She comes over, looking like her face is about to explode with rage, and demands to ask which of us had committed this heinous act of defacing school property.

    I blamed Jim.

    Jim, of course, denied the whole thing and said it was me, but I wasn't about to take the rap. I was too young for juvey. So I dissed my pal Jim and swore blind it was him. Unable to make her mind up, Mrs Dickinson kept us behind after school so she could speak to our parents. Sitting in the corner shamefaced, I watched Mrs Dickinson and my mum talk it out, unable to make out what they were saying. Afterwards my mum got me strapped in the back of the car, all the while saying nothing. Then, when she got in to the driver's seat, my mum turned around and asked me straight -

    “Stuart, did you draw on your desk at school?”

    “No mum, I did not. It was Jim.”

    “Right, well I'm going to have a word with Jim's parents next time I see them.”

    I was going straight to hell.

    Matters didn't improve after that. There was no sweeping this under the carpet. My mum did have words with Jim's parents, who rightly defended their son's integrity, and still I didn't own up. It was only when we were driving back from the shops one day and my mum asked me again if I'd really drawn on the desk at school. This time I owned up. I'm not sure what had changed in the time between her first asking and then repeating the question – maybe guilt had gotten the better of me – but I do remember that owning up didn't make me feel better straight away. Especially as my mum threatened to pack up all my toys and give them to the charity shops. I cried all the way home. Don't worry though, the threat was never carried out. It was enough for her to make me believe that she would. And I never lied again... (ahem.)

    The morals of this story are twofold. First, you shouldn't lie to your teacher or your parents – it's only going to get you in more shit along the line. Secondly, though, just because your youngster has been taught valuable moral lessons about life and you've brought him up proper, doesn't mean he or she doesn't have the innate capacity for being a lying little shit from time to time. My story is a light hearted one, but on a serious note, there are other stories of childish misbehaviour that are much worse than mine.

    Innocence, I believe, is not something you're born with. It's something that's taught – something that SHOULD be taught. It's by knowing innocence, knowing what is good and worthwhile in the world, that we build our moral fibre. Once we've not just been taught, but lived, a good and honourable life, or at least understood its importance, we are then free to make our own mistakes or avoid making them again, to have empathy, to recognise the consequences of our actions.

    But, without innocence, well, we're seeing the effects of that all the time now. Children who are acting from some primal instinct, that throw stones at dogs, that grow up without a conscience, that act out horrible crimes we find difficult to imagine even if committed by adults. We all know who these people are because we see them in the news, we even see them in our own cities, or towns, or villages, or streets.

    I'm sure that you can't always blame the parents, or schools, or neighbourhoods. I'm sure that sometimes children just don't have access to that part of the brain that controls inhibition. But I'm also pretty sure that there are parents out there that think they can allow their children to do whatever they like and they'll grow up to be decent beings. And I'm also pretty sure they're wrong.

    There are times when ethics are uncertain, like how morally culpable we are when we go to the shops and buy products when we don't really know where the money's going to. But there are some things we can all agree are utterly morally repugnant. I'm a libertarian for the most part, but I do think we all carry a responsibility towards our families and communities to make sure the next generation grow up with a natural respect for life, where we don't have to cross to the other side of the street when we see gangs of children giving us the stink-eye, or where our pets are more well behaved than the animals that attack them.
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