TELEVISION / Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings

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THE SUN shone bright and the fields were a lush green as two 11-year-old boys went off exploring, as 11-year-old boys always do on idyllic summer afternoons. They strode through foliage as tall as themselves, while making their way to a dangerous old derelict house that they knew in their heart of hearts they should avoid. The whole scene could have come from the pen of Enid Blyton or Richmal Crompton, except that the boys' accents didn't fit the nostalgic picture.

'You find out what's right and what's wrong, like,' one of them said in a voice born and bred on Merseyside. It may have been grossly unfair on the boys but it was absolutely the intention of Citizen 2000 (C4) to summon an image of the murderers of James Bulger, who on a day not quite as warm and in a setting not quite as pastoral, but distant in neither time nor geography, provoked a debate about whether they had yet found out 'what's right and what's wrong'.

This annual documentary is following the children who were born in the same year as Channel 4 through to the millennium, when they come of age. Since they made the same programme for broadcast a year ago, the event occurred which, it could be argued generally and also from the evidence on show here, might change the nature of childhood in this country forever. One mother had told her son that if he hurt a baby she'd cut off his hands: children just never used to be told that kind of thing, or not outside Charles Dickens's Dotheboys Hall.

The first of three programmes dug for the seeds of transgression: just where do we start going wrong? One of the boys from Liverpool had posters on his wall of various heroes of the computer age, plus Dennis the Menace and Michael Jackson. A lot of us grew up with Dennis and never hurt a flea but - without wishing to sound like the politically correct primary school head who wouldn't let her charges see Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden - there wasn't a lot else to look up to on that wall. Or maybe parents should take the rap: another child argued that 'grown-ups break the law; why shouldn't we?'. There's no easy answer to that, except to say that when an adult nicks a car at least you can lock them up.

A frighteningly mature girl called Georgia said with a guilty smirk that 'adults do a lot of wrong in sex', and as the child of divorcees she should know. But she had forgiven her father for his affair because it was clear to her that he needed someone younger and more energetic. We didn't find out what her mother had to say to that. If this long-term project demonstrates anything, it is that the mind of a child is an endlessly supple and porous thing that somehow relies on its own self-designed architecture.

During her parents' separation Georgia became a shoulder to cry on, so that 'it almost felt to me that I was the mother and mummy was the child'. If, as Wordsworth said before they invented politically correct asexual phrasing, the child really is the father of the man, then heaven only knows what stalkers go through in their youth. The one stalker who consented to talk to Public Eye (BBC 2) was a lonely woman who obsessively wrote to the snooker player Stephen Hendry: 'Everyone else has people that care for them,' was her excuse, 'and I've got nobody.'

Hendry's manager advised her to stop. What happened? 'I sent pornographic items through the mail to him. I rang up his office and made obscene remarks on the Ansaphone.' Such clinical language, such detachment: no wonder these people believe they cause no harm. And as far as British (though, since 1990, not American) law is concerned, they aren't.

Another romantic reject who for seven years has ruined the life of a woman in St Austell wasn't quite so communicative, at least verbally. When he spotted a camera crew on his tale, the hypocrite went at them with a crow-bar, which is nothing to what most victims would like to do to people like him. But then that definitely is wrong, as even the law of the land knows.