No wonder our children are bonkers

The problem lies with adults who express their own anxieties in their attitudes to the young
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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK'S revelation that our children are suffering from primary- school executive stress, are often weirdly neurotic and are generally going bonkers, should perhaps come as no surprise.

For some time, after all, we've known that more pupils are being excluded from schools than ever before. The rise in juvenile crime has become so severe that a children's prison is now available where 11- and 12-year- olds are put under the care of Group Four security operatives. As for the mental health of our more law-abiding children, a recent survey that put Tim Henman in 11th place in a list of moral and spiritual leaders most respected by 15-year-olds tells its own grim story.

The problem, it need hardly be said, lies not with children, most of whom remain surprisingly sane, but with adults who tend to express their own anxieties in their attitudes towards the young.

The Victorians were clammily obsessed with the innocence of childhood and eagerly painted or photographed its naked, prelapsarian purity. More recently, the ideals of the hippie revolution curdled at the precise point, in the late Sixties, when its leaders became preoccupied with the "liberation" of schoolchildren, while the following decade revealed a sort of guilt-ridden fear of the young, with the new wave of such books and films as The Exorcist, Flowers in the Attic and The Shining.

Elements of all these neuroses are evident today - for example, in the unhealthy media interest in paedophilia and in the peculiar public rage shown against young offenders - but a contemporary gloss has been added. According to last week's report, from the Mental Health Foundation, children are increasingly perceived either as "evil demons" or, on the other hand, as "designer accessories or pets".

In other words, now that we not only compete for better salaries but also like to show a healthy profit in our caring, emotional lives, the need to be seen as a successful parent has become central. Children have become little ambassadors for their proud, boastful parents.

But to raise these acceptably dynamic yet well mannered children, who pass all the right exams and get into the right schools, requires money, effort and anxiety from middle-class parents in the private system. Ruinously expensive nursery schools employ a head of studies who solemnly reports to parents on the academic progress of their four-year-olds. Teachers in private and public sectors are under unprecedented pressure from the more ambitious parents to push their progeny up out of the much-feared average-ability band.

Oddly, these attitudes seem to have infected the educational system as a whole. The national curriculum has radically reduced the time pupils spend playing or in lessons now deemed less important (music or drama, for example) in favour of yet another exam-geared lesson in literacy or arithmetic. In our eagerness to turn our children into respectable, upwardly mobile mini-adults, we are squeezing out the very moments of leisure, freedom and exploration that would provide them with the self-sufficiency and emotional resources they need to survive in an absurdly stressful world. The much-vaunted caring society is in too much of a hurry to allow children to develop at their own pace.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, parents who have discovered that their children are neither pets nor accessories but are every bit as inconveniently imperfect as any adult express the new spirit of selfishness not in over-competitiveness but with neglect - passing on an inheritance of despair and cynicism. No wonder the next generation is going off the rails.

Judging by figures published by the Children's Society, the situation of young people in Britain is one of deep crisis. There has been a 450 per cent increase in permanent exclusions from school since 1990. The number of 15- and 16-year-olds in custody rose by 72 per cent in the three years before 1995. We imprison more young people than any other country in the European community - 5,300 a year compared to 16 in Denmark and 25 in Portugal. An average of 100 children run away from home every day.

Nor should those who point to the success of that nice Tim Henman in the survey of moral role models be too smug; a recent report into teenage language has revealed that the distrust of 13-year-olds of anyone who does not conform to generally accepted norms of clean-cut looks and conventional behaviour is part of a deep and often violent sexual or racial prejudice. The reason for their closed-mindedness is a profound sense of insecurity.

The mini-adults are coming into their inheritance.