The Death Of Childhood?

5th June 2009

‘A sinister cocktail of junk food, marketing, over-competitive schooling and electronic entertainment is poisoning childhood…’ So wrote a powerful lobby of academics and children's experts in 2006, in a letter to a national newspaper that fuelled a series of headline-grabbing debates over what they had memorably termed, ‘the death of childhood’.

Clare Finney reflects on what it means to be young in the 21st century.

Critics then were quick to condemn the group – which included children’s authors Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo, plus childcare expert Dr Penelope Leach, and Baroness Greenfield, the director of the Royal Institution – as ‘melodramatic’ and overly conservative. However, three years on, the issues surrounding our ‘junk culture’ and child development have by no means faded. A couple of weeks ago, as my attempts to reach for the last Cosmopolitan in Heathrow were thwarted by a mini-skirted ten-year-old in heels that should only ever be seen on the set of Sex and the City, I couldn’t help but be reminded of their dire predictions.

Resisting the temptation to smack the girl about the head with the nearest Beano, I waited impatiently for her mother’s reaction to the fact that her little darling wished to spend the next eight hours reading about solo sex tips – but to no avail. Perhaps she didn’t see the bold yellow headline, complete with pictures. Perhaps she didn’t care. Perhaps, being be-heeled and be-mini-skirted in an equally disturbing manner herself, she thought how wonderful it was that little Britney was following in her faux Louis Vuitton footsteps. But whatever went through that woman’s mind when she let her child walk out of Smiths clutching a magazine emblazoned with the words ‘50 amazing orgasm facts! Yes, Yes, Yes!’, it wasn’t her child’s best interests.

Or was it? In 1983, a book titled Children without Childhood: Growing Up Too Fast in the World of Sex and Drugs heralded the arrival of ‘The Age of Preparation’ – the belief that, when it comes to surviving in the increasingly erratic and challenging life of an adult, prevention is better than cure. Innocence, once the most sacred preserve of childhood, had been discarded in favour of early exposure to ‘grown-up’ situations: from alcoholism and anorexia right through to sex, skunk and swearing. This might not be the conscious logic of parents and carers today, but thanks to a rather nominal nine o’clock watershed, badly placed woman’s magazines and careless adult conversations, the exposure is still very much there.

I don’t need any spectacles, rose-tinted or otherwise, to look back on my youth. I know that, at ten years old, I simply wasn’t interested in what Cosmopolitan had to offer. Playgrounds were exactly that – for playing – and if we did talk about boys, it was only to bemoan our brothers, who smelled, or our dads, who nagged us. It’s true that many of our games involved pretending to be ‘grown up’, but then we spent just as much time pretending to be animals, Power Rangers, witches and princesses.

Competition and peer pressure, now that it has been politically corrected out of the classroom and the sports field, is finding its voice in other, far more negative, ways: triumphs in running, swimming and spelling have been replaced with triumphs in make-up application, Alco-pop consumption and ‘bases’ – which, for those parents not yet in the know, is now the standard unit of dating: base 1 being a kiss and base 8 being ‘you-know-what’.

Of course, peer pressure in itself is nothing new; the force that made the cigarette so alluring in the 1920s was probably much the same as that which made wearing anything other than a GAP jumper and Buffalos on mufti day simply unthinkable when I was at school. What has changed, however, is the conditions in which these forces exist, something that has as much to do with the day-to-day attitudes of ‘responsible’ adults as it does with the torrent of technology on which it is so repeatedly blamed.

It is quite natural that, when faced with a child whose greatest ambition is determined by Jordan’s current bra-size, one should wish to pass the buck, and technology – being new, pervasive, limitless, uncontrollable and unfathomable to all but the hippest of parents – is the perfect target. Televisions, computers, and game consoles, once hailed as the saviour of overworked parents and their bored children, are now lamented as harbingers of a social epidemic that has manifested itself in the stunted imaginations and violent attitudes of its youth. In the 1990s God was a DJ; now He’s a remote control, with the results of the latest survey by Booktrust revealing that the average 11 to 12-year-old watches TV for 8 and a half hours a week, and that children from four to nine spend at least 7 hours every week in front of the box… fuelling more fears over the availability of unsuitable content

But blaming the younger generation’s tasteless attitudes on Gordon Ramsey’s F-word is about as naïve as blaming a surge in rape crime on page 3 of The Sun. For every young gang member using Nintendo Wii as target practice for the streets of Peckham, there must be hundreds of perfectly balanced schoolboys shooting forty mafia on Grand Theft Auto before starting on their science homework. Lamentable as it is that the majority of programmes today have the intellectual insight of a pickaxe, the problem posed to children by television and its associates, is not qualitative, but quantitive.

Over 600 television channels, 4,000+ video games and upwards of seven million websites make up a bewildering world that offers, if not quite the instant gratification it promises, than at least the continuous hope of it. For all its powers of information and communication, the climate of continuous stimulation created by all this on-screen entertainment leaves children very little opportunity to develop their own powers of creativity. A quick glance into any school playground will tell you that, while playing is not an entirely forgotten art, the number of children for whom football is FIFA 09 Ultimate Team (on any or all of the games consoles they own), and ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ a Facebook application is nevertheless increasing rapidly.

Idle hands may be the devil’s playground, but they are also a child’s. Leaving them to their own devices may be nerve-wracking or home-wrecking (the time my brother and I transformed our parents’ bedroom into ‘mole city’ by turning off the lights and covering strategically positioned chests and tables with the bedspread springs to mind), but it is essential if youngsters are to delve into their imaginations and think outside the plug socket.

While the cares and concerns of adulthood make the hopelessly romanticised worlds of Notting Hill and Friends infinitely preferable to the present, the art of childhood is not to escape reality, but to create it; to walk into your family kitchen and see, not saucepans and spatulas, but crowns and oars. In the weird and wonderful recesses of the imagination, one child’s trash is another child’s toy; and if the sight of African boys kicking around a football made of plastic bags is a discomfiting reminder of their poverty, it is nevertheless an uplifting testimony to this innate creative power – a power that many of their western contemporaries are rendered increasingly incapable of harnessing. Even if a youngster manages to escape being bombarded by the endless ‘entertainment, the growing tendency of adults today to see childishness as something to be cured rather than celebrated is enough to bring the most wild flight of fancy back to earth with a bang.

Time and time again one hears the words ‘Just grow up!’ spluttered forth from parents infuriated by their six year old’s inability to act anything other than his age. Childishness is rebuked, whilst being a ‘big boy’ is encouraged and praised; a mantra which is potently reinforced by their being increasingly subject to ‘grown up’ conversations. Discussions and decisions that once would have taken place behind a closed door are now being conducted with it very much ajar; to the horror of teachers who hear the content relayed between children in the playground.

‘It’s like something out of Billy Elliot,’ one inner-city teacher described. ‘Sweet little girls with pigtails shouting to each other about daddy always being pissed or mummy having an affair with an a***-hole’. And while this may be an extreme case, it is still a worrying example of how parental indiscretions can affect childhood development.

Numerous research projects have shown that children learn and develop best when given time by adults – and yet, by exposing children so early to the trials and tribulations of adulthood, we destroy the creativity that comes with behaving childishly. There’s a fine line between censorship and discretion; carefully tread it we must if we are to allow our children to have the childhood they need to become responsible and contented adults.

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