WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CHILDHOOD? PART ONE

A KIND OF INNOCENCE
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The Independent Culture
Childhood was once associated with certainty and innocence. No longer. Today, it seems, shades of the prison house and worse close in upon the growing child almost from birth. Abuse, danger, poverty, pollution, declining educational standards, disintegrating families, a moral culture that lacks all conviction ... these are the main characteristics of the world in which children find themselves at the end of the 20th century. The innocent idyll of growing-up seems lost for ever. That's the theory, at least.

But do such gloomy prognostications have any basis in fact? An alternative view, recently proposed by the vice-chairman of the Conservative party, is that young people have never had it so good. Unemployed school-leavers and homeless teenagers may laugh bitterly at such claims, but for children they are not necessarily so absurd. It is at least arguable that today's pre-teenagers enjoy unprecedented levels of health, wealth, security and educational opportunity. But have adult anxieties now so overrun the boundaries of childhood as to negate these material benefits?

This two-part series attempts to answer such questions, re-examining the current alarmist orthodoxy on two levels: the particular and the general. Overleaf, Geraldine Bedell compares her own east London childhood with that of a girl of similar background today, three decades later; while Deborah Holder, on page 8, sifts through the mass of often conflicting child-related statistics in search of reliable facts.

Next week, Blake Morrison reflects on the changing face of rural childhood; and the testimonies of successive generations of post-war children shed further light on what has become one of the most emotive topics of today

"She walked slowly to the bed and sat down thoughtfully, a graceful and fascinating figure." That was how I used to think about myself when I was a child - in the third person, with lots of adverbs. Thus translated into a heroine, I was a more beautiful and mysterious person than in real life - where, if truth be told, I was not all that interesting. I had, in fact, a strong suspicion that I had been put on the Earth in some arcane and so far inexplicable experiment by God to create a completely average human being. I didn't have a hope in hell of ever becoming a dashing female pirate or spending the school holidays foiling plots to smuggle state secrets out of the country. My role was to live in a small semi-detached house in the east London suburbs and, when I grew up, to get an office job, probably in the City. That was what nice East End girls did - that, and dress neatly but with flair.

When I was growing up, in the 1960s, the suburbs were described (by Lewis Mumford) as the "apotheosis of a collective attempt to lead a private life". It was a time when adults still remembered the war, national government, battling for Britain, when their neighbours were their allies. But it was also a time of never having had it so good, when affluence was producing fridges, washing- machines, colour televisions, like some vigorous flowering triffid. It was a time of cars and home improvement, of hi-fi and G-Plan; of the making, saving and spending of money. The nuclear family shared values with its neighbours, but lived cocooned by consumer durables, resolutely private in its pleasures.

My family and I, needless to say, weren't nearly as average as I imagined. We were lucky to be there. Rather later, when I was about 14, I came across Michael Young and Peter Willmott's Family and Class In A London Suburb - a book that, incredibly, two men had bothered to write about the completely average, wholly uninteresting east London borough where I lived. "If social class has an edge in Wanstead and Woodford," Young and Willmott observed, "it is partly because so many people come from the East End." Wanstead and Woodford was fiercely - because often quite recently - middle class; one of the safest Tory seats in the country and grimly determined to stay that way. My parents came from the East End (which, as my father often said, was a great place to come from; you just wouldn't want to go back there). When my mother passed the 11- plus, the whole of her primary school had a day off. A new Dralon sofa and gas central heating were not things to be taken for granted.

LUCY GEORGE lives in Wanstead today, not far from where I grew up, and went to the same primary school as me. She is 13: old enough to insist on wearing her new red flower-spattered swimsuit to swimming club instead of the regulation black but not old enough to have got beyond childhood, to sneer at childish things.

She is swimming at Walthamstow Baths, length after length of graceful crawl, committed breaststroke and lunging butterfly. She does this every Monday and Friday evening between 7pm and 8pm and it looks exhaustingly earnest.

Lucy - slim and quiet, with a narrow, intense face - gives every indication of being an earnest person. Certainly, she is not easy. "What do you want to watch me swimming for?" she demands. "What's that going to tell you?" And when I wave her off, inanely exhorting her to enjoy her lesson, she snaps: "It's not exactly a lesson."

There is more to Lucy than she gives away. Her school report is astonishingly, spectacularly good, but as she squabbles amicably and stupidly with her younger sister in the car, you wouldn't know. Perhaps she, too, is simmering with a sense of unnamed, unknown possibilities.

Lucy's Auntie Barbara, her mother's sister, has come to stay. During the swimming session she announces that she thinks childhood has got worse, certainly since her own four children - the eldest of whom is 30 - were growing up. "They're less innocent now," she says. "Not so happy. There's more pressure on them to be successful."

"I don't pressurise mine to be successful," Lucy's mother objects.

"No, I don't mean you particularly," Auntie Barbara recollects herself. "But everything. Society. They worry more about everything."

This is the commonplace view. Adults' expectations of childhood are notoriously shifting and self-serving. Until the 18th century, childhood as a concept scarcely existed at all. Since then, children have at times been variously supposed to be innocent, corrupt, clever, foolish, charged with potential, and empty vessels, to be filled by useful adult input. The overriding contemporary belief is that childhood in the 1990s is lousy and may well be producing vicious young people.

Neil Postman put this case powerfully in 1994, in an apocalyptic book, The Disappearance of Childhood (Vintage, New York) arguing that childhood as a time of separate, sheltered interests is coming to an end, thanks to the increasing articulation of culture through the mass media. Film and television, Postman claims, are everywhere, and everywhere dominated by adult interests in sex, violence and consumption. Young people's continual exposure to this slew of adult concerns is eroding the distinctions that once allowed them to remain special, to be children.

Rosalind Miles, in The Children We Deserve (HarperCollins, 1994), similarly contested that the revolt against authority in the 1960s "for the first time in history gave adults the right to remain children". This particular abdication of parental responsibility was followed by the emphasis on self-discovery and self-expression of the 1970s, the "me-decade" behaviour of the 1980s, and the "grim survivalism of the 1990s" - all of which has meant that "the preoccupations of adults have dominated the agenda and the needs of children have been pushed to the back of the queue."

Pessimism has become the orthodoxy, not least since the murder of James Bulger. Children, according to most media representations, are having a bad time and, often, going to the bad as a result. Adults are reluctant to acknowledge (other than in fictions, like Lord of the Flies, The Midwich Cuckoos or Cat's Eye, where it is commonplace) that children might have a natural propensity to cruelty. It is easier, less upsetting, to conclude that the Bulger case portends the decline of society itself. This was certainly the conclusion of a survey for Barnardo's, conducted by Mori and published earlier this year, in which only 12 per cent of adults said that they thought today's children would have a better time than they'd had themselves. The great majority felt that children were exposed to more divorce, poverty, job insecurity and violence than they had been, and that the growing inequality in the distribution of economic prosperity (one child in four in Britain is now defined as living in poverty) is exacting a severe psychological toll. The authors conclude that "the striking consistency of views expressed by the majority of people suggests that there is something of a malaise in our confidence in the future."

Lucy's childhood, according to this theory, ought to be more troubled than mine was. I set out to find out whether this was the case; to observe her and make comparisons. Certainly, she's aware of these adult perceptions of childhood as a perilous time. When I ask whether there's anything she would like to change, she says, "I wish things were less dangerous. People are always telling you not to be out after dark, to be careful across the roads, making you worry about crime." Authority is now something to guard against as well as respect (tricky, this). It would never have occurred to me that adults I knew would be interested in abusing me, or that I might need to call Childline because there was no adult close by in whom I could confide.

Lucy's mother, who is slightly put out by her sister's view that her children are having a dismal time, does acknowledge that children are probably less innocent than they were. Lucy watched a sex education video shortly before she left primary school - "I think that forces them to grow up" - and, although her parents shelter her from sexy movies ("mainly in case she asks questions I wouldn't know the answers to"), she does occasionally see violence, not least on news programmes.

But none of this, actually, sounds so far removed from my childhood. I didn't get a sex education video, but would have been deeply grateful for one. Sexy movies were out of the question, and my parents, I now realise, were careful to keep me away from news programmes. The suburbs, now as then, are a protected, even charmed, environment for the raising of children. And now, as then, they tend to produce girls, at least, who are a bit shy, polite, and feel plagued with unexplored potential (just as, probably, more deprived areas tend to produce much the same kind of girls as they ever did).

After three-quarters of an hour watching Lucy plough up and down Walthamstow Baths, I decide Rosalind Miles is talking rubbish. Lucy hasn't been "pushed to the back of the queue"; her parents take her swimming every Monday and Friday night and stay there while she swims her many thousands of metres. She can't be dropped off and left; by the time her mother got home she'd have to come out again. Yet this is not Lucy's only organised leisure activity. She has something "every day except Thursdays and Sundays: swimming twice a week, girls' brigade, gymnastics, tennis, piano lessons - and, till recently, violin." Her leisure is planned and orchestrated with precision, and her parents would be entitled to complain (as middle- class parents frequently do complain) that they feel like glorified chauffeurs, at the beck and call of kids' timetables.

There must, though, be a fashionably pessimistic downside to all this? It must be that today's kids have less independence, less freedom of movement; there's less idle loitering in the street after school on bikes and rollerskates. The roads are too clotted with speeding cars and the fear of child murderers. Except that I wasn't allowed off the pavement on my bike anyway. One car can be as dangerous as 20. And child murderers were well-known to congregate on the banks of the River Lea, which ran behind the houses opposite ours. Occasionally you'd bump into one and he'd expose himself.

Lucy has a bike, and even at primary school would go out with her friends Elizabeth and Marigold on the green opposite her house, which surrounds the church and dominates one side of Wanstead High Street. It's true she spends more time than I did supervised by adults: but, thinking back, those hours whittled away cycling round the block, or hanging around outside the school gates on the one square yard of tarmac smooth enough for rollerskating, tended to inculcate not so much a sensation of independence as a dismal awareness of tedium and constraint.

But perhaps this is the downside: Lucy has none of the luxury of boredom, so vital to the development of the imagination, so essential to a proper childhood... Except that, later, she says: "Sometimes, if I don't have much homework, I get very bored. I can't think what to do with myself. But then I usually end up going round to see a friend, or watching television."

What has changed is that Lucy's frame of reference is wider than mine. For a start, her mother, Joan, came to Britain from India at the age of eight, and works. She doesn't have what women used to call "a little office job"; she is a chiropodist. What's more, she does this work visibly, at home, and it's important: when Lucy was younger, she had "a lady come in to look after us, a childminder, who'd had 10 children of her own." Though Joan is always there when Lucy, her older brother and younger sister get in from school, three days a week she'll be working in her consulting- room at the front of the house.

Lucy has been to Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, as well as to Spain; she knows that when her mother was a student she travelled overland to India with a friend. She has been exposed to the values of the Disney Corporation as well as those of Enid Blyton; to Sugar magazine and Just 17. Her primary schooling was not, as mine was, calculated partly to instil in her a fear of authority. No one in her class was caned. There were several canings a term when I was a child.

The self-flagellating Rosalind Miles view of the world stands up to scrutiny even less when it comes to schooling. Our childhood interests were not, at primary school, noticeably elevated above those of adults. We sat in rows in front of a blackboard and received the three Rs in the form in which adults found them easiest to deliver. It was effective (Nightingale school, then as now, was highly popular), but it was a machine, constructed with a view to our long-term prospects rather than our immediate happiness.

Lucy's class, by contrast, were invited to develop a complete system of retail banking, with printed chequebooks and weekly statements. When they studied Vikings they got to dress up, eat Viking meals and do Viking jobs. If this is child-centred education, I can't conceive of a nine- year-old who wouldn't choose it over the terror that was our weekly maths lesson with the headmaster.

Lucy's primary school was a kinder place than mine. Half of her year was not relegated (socially and morally, it seemed, as well as academically) to the B-stream. She could not be threatened, as I was, with being "put down to the B-stream" when she cut up someone else's piece of paper in a craft lesson. There were no prefects in her final year - becoming one of which, we were made to feel, was a final summation of our worth. Or not, in my case.

Lucy's primary school was, at any rate, a kinder place until she got to the 11-plus. Redbridge, the borough into which Wanstead and Woodford has been subsumed, has clung on to two grammar schools through all the upheaval of comprehensivisation; and the 11-plus, effectively an entrance examination for the boys' or the girls' school, is now voluntary, although almost everyone takes it. Most of them are rejected.

In my year, the last before comprehensives were introduced, 25 per cent of the borough's children went to grammar school, although it never felt that bad at Nightingale, where 47 of the 49 children in the A-stream passed, and one of the 29 in the B-stream. In Lucy's year, more than 1,000 sat for the 120 places at the girls' school, including children from outside the borough. Lucy's school "got four girls in, and six to the boys' school" and she was one of them. Her older brother and younger sister both go to my old school, a former co-educational grammar which became a comprehensive in my first year there. Competition at 11 is more ruthless than it used to be, and the elite it produces is tinier. And in that, I guess, Wanstead reflects the world beyond, in which even the Labour Party's commiment to equality of opportunity is freighted with anxieties about undermining personal potential: in which elites get smaller, richer and more confident, and the rest of us need to shore up Bupa and school fees plans and pensions against the precariousness of our lives.

IT IS not true, despite Tolstoy, that all happy families are alike. Lucy's childhood doesn't look or feel like mine, although it's hard to tell whether this is because of individual circumstance or because childhood itself has changed. And memory is unreliable: what I remember now as constraints probably reflect feelings I had in adolescence, rather than in childhood, when I was content for things to be secure, sunny and uneventful.

Lucy's family didn't come from the East End; they live in Wanstead because that's where Joan bought her chiropody practice. Before that they'd lived in north London, in Swiss Cottage, which, they decided, was "too much of an inner city place to bring up children". Lucy's father, Alan, who is originally from Nottingham, is self-employed, as mine was, though he is a plumber and works through a firm in New Malden, where mine was an electrician and set up an office equipment business in the City. (It says "electrician" on my birth certificate; on my sister's, a few years later, it says "company director".) Lucy's house, I now recognise, is quite a long way superior to ours: one of a solid, Edwardian terrace, facing the church and green. As a child, I'm not sure whether I would have realised this, because Lucy's house is also darker and drabber. My parents were always tearing out kitchen cupboards and installing gleaming fitted kitchens, introducing central heating, putting up shelves, ripping off old wallpaper and replacing it with woodchip. We were into home improvement, dusting and tidiness, music, and hi-fi (my father played the piano, and had speakers when other people were still on radiograms). All that upward mobility was a light, bright, positive thing.

And, eventually, we moved on. It was not unusual to spend an hour or so at the weekend walking round the streets looking at things other families had done to their houses - porches, lighting arrangements, crazy paving - and considering whether we were ready to move. My childhood is divided into three phases, each seven years long, representing the different houses we lived in as we marched out of east London along the Central Line: Leytonstone, Wanstead, South Woodford. (My parents finally made it over the border into Essex when I went to university.) Lucy's parents have lived 16 years in their current house, and have no thoughts at all of moving.

In Deynecourt Gardens, where we lived, attractive young mums with leggings and long blonde hair live now behind the net curtains in the shared-driveway semis. They talk in estuary accents about picking up the kids from school; they have cared-for hands and wear foundation in the afternoon. They don't look so different from us, though I wonder snobbishly whether they read as many novels as we did, or whether these mums are always raising (as mine was) the impossibility of the existence of God over tea.

Other things, however, have changed. There's no early closing on Thursday in the High Street: things move faster; the rhythm of the week is less communal. But the presence of two tea shops, open on Sundays, serving cream teas at pavement tables, suggests that people may pamper themselves more than they did.

It was possible for us to have 49 children in my primary school class partly because we were taught in serried ranks, partly because we all spoke English. Of the 33 children in Lucy's class there, eight had another first language. There was one black family at Nightingale when I was there: their mother was white, they were committed churchgoers, the children were clever, and - which probably mattered even more - they were the most beautifully spoken children in the school. (Lucy, like my own children, frequently fails to pronounce her ths, not because she has a speech impediment, but because kids think it's cool. If I'd done it at the age of three, let alone 13, my mother would have been scandalised. We had not left Hackney Wick for that.)

Most of the non-white families at Nightingale now are Asian, the latest wave of immigrants to move out from the East End. When I was 13 and we put our house on the market, the middle-aged spinsters who lived next door asked my parents not to sell to a black family; an undertaking that my father, I am relieved to say, refused to give. (I was proud, rather than relieved, at the time, in the same way that I was proud of our being the only family in the street ever to put up a Labour election poster.)

Lucy and her sister Sarah don't consider themselves in any sense Asian, and look puzzled that I find it a question worth broaching. "Asian people have darker skin," Sarah says uninterestedly. Joan says that Nightingale has become more ethnically mixed in the past five years, since the extensive playing fields - once all that you could see from the classroom windows on heavy, grass-scented summer days - were covered over by a housing estate. Development has taken its toll in other ways: Deynecourt Gardens, once steeped in quietness, now buzzes irritably with the whine of traffic from the M11, built behind the river opposite. And its extension is under construction at the end of Lucy's road, although protesters have finally forced the building of an underpass which should save her street from the constant tearing noise that has ruined mine.

Other things that you might expect to have changed have not done so. Lucy's family eats together every night, as we did, although modern children are supposed to snack alone. They use the public library all the time - at least once a week - as we did. There weren't many children of divorced parents at her primary school, certainly not that she knew of. And though there are about five girls whose parents are divorced in her class at the grammar school, marital breakdown is evidently not a subject to which she has given a great deal of thought, still less fretted about. Computers have had little immediate impact: an old, rather battered- looking machine sits in the spare room at the top of the house, "but it hasn't really worked for ages. There was one at Nightingale, but there was one boy who was really good at computers and he tended to be on it most of the time." Her brother and sister have both had bikes stolen - something that never happened to me - but otherwise she's had no experience of crime. And she watches no more television than I did (though she does see more cartoons): an hour after school and maybe 90 minutes later on. She isn't addicted to soaps. I watched Crossroads religiously.

The child psychotherapist and writer Adam Phillips, discussing recently the importance of curiosity to childhood, made a case against the conventional psychoanalytic theory of childhood as necessarily and exclusively a time of growing awareness of loss, separation and frustration. There is a different kind of child, he wrote, "whom psychoanalysis has mislaid. Not merely the satisfied child, but the child with an astonishing capacity for pleasure; with an unwilled relish for sensual experience ... this child, who can be deranged by hope and anticipation - indeed, by an ice-cream - seems to have a passionate love of life that for some reason isn't always easy to sustain." I recognise myself in this child, and I think Lucy would probably recognise herself, even if the particularities of our lives have been different.

And they have been different, even if mainly in small ways. The degree to which I was un-moved by my parents' interest in teak cabinets owed a lot to my being a child of the welfare state. I was secure: assured of a solid education, of free health care; brought up at the high tide of a belief in equality. I was not the first person in my family to go to university, because there were older cousins. But when, much later, Neil Kinnock made his passionate "I was the first child in my family..." speech in defence of the welfare state, I knew what he was talking about. A whole generation of children who had drunk free school milk and sat down in the afternoons for Listen With Mother must have known. We were the children who ate nourishing school dinners that cost our parents very little: meat and two veg, pudding and custard.

Nightingale primary school, when Lucy was there, didn't reek of cabbage. She was not required to eat grey meat, lumpy powdered mashed potato and tinned peas, semolina and prunes. "We normally had beefburgers, half a bun, and chips. And they did baked beans. And mixed veg - like all chopped up little bits. And turkey drummers."

As an adult, I am appalled by this pandering to fast-food cravings. "Where are the greens?" I want to protest. Where is the education in such unvarying pap? But if I were a child, if I still had to eat the stuff ... that's another matter.

IT MAY have become comforting to believe - not least since James Bulger - that society is damaging children. Adults want to hang on to the idea of childhood, or at least of their own childhoods, as a once-upon-a-time, happy-ever-after story. That notion of childhood articulates our projections, longings, altruism - some of our best feelings. But has the idyll of childhood really been fatally undermined?

Not all childhoods ever were ideal. A lot has always depended on parents, and parents remain what they ever were: a mixed bunch, ranging from the effortlessly brilliant through the effortfully oppressive to the heedless and hopeless. Insofar as communal circumstances have changed - the outward, social conditions - it is true that we inhabit a more violent, commercialised culture. Yet it is also a culture of staggering, breathtaking opportunity, in which adults are publicly and self-consciously preoccupied with the welfare and development of children.

My conviction of averageness was partly a way of contending with a sense of limitations. (Among other things, I grew up before much feminism had filtered through to Wanstead, before grammar school boys, even, were commonplace in the upper tiers of Whitehall or the City.) Lucy is growing up in a world powered by instant satellite and computer communication. At school she can converse instantaneously on the Internet with someone in Sweden or San Francisco. She doesn't expect to get an office job in the City, to catch the Central Line every day looking stylish in navy and green. She thinks she might be a lawyer, or a paediatrician. For her, Tizer and salad cream are not luxuries. !

NOW AND THEN: AN INDEX O

F CHILDHOOD

There are two kinds of statistics: those that reflect the actualities of the world, and those that reflect personal attitudes and beliefs. Where children are concerned, the latter predominate. Politicians, educationalists, social workers - all have axes to grind. And, since it appears to be a condition of adulthood to see the past as a gentler, easier time, many grown-ups are emotionally predisposed to believe that life is harder for today's children than it was in their day.

The figures don't always back up this perception - and, when they do, it is not always the full story. Take child suicide, potentially a measure of unhappiness and anxiety. Figures suggest that it has grown more common, but, warn the Samaritans, in the past coroners would often record child suicides as accidental deaths to spare parents' feelings. Today, suicides are more often recorded as such. The same logic can be applied to the apparent rise in child abuse, less likely to reflect a real rise than it is to reflect our recent acknowledgement that something so dreadful exists, and the subsequent rise in reports.

But while the statistical picture of childhood across the generations is not straightforward, two things are clear. Parents are worried; and they may be worrying about the wrong things. They worry most about sexual abuse, abductions and child murder; yet there is no firm evidence that these things are any more common than they were 50 years ago. None the less, these fears curtail our children's freedom - and encourage them to grow fat and unhealthy from too much time spent at home or in the back of the car, safe but inactive.

We worry endlessly about drugs, which are responsible for only a tiny percentage of deaths among children, but fail to rethink our attitudes to alcohol, a contributory factor in many violent crimes against children. Worse, we remain inexplicably complacent about road accidents - probably the biggest preventable cause of child death. In 1996, it is likely that as many children will die in road accidents as will die from infectious diseases (and 10 times as many as will be murdered). Pre-teenage children are particularly vulnerable: one in 15 British children will be killed or injured on the roads.

The figures gathered here paint a picture of the changing life-patterns of British children. Some are hard facts: the population figures, for instance. With others, such as those on child poverty, comparisons with the past are of limited use as definitions of poverty are constantly updated.

Finally, there is the question of what the figures mean. Are the growing numbers of home computers producing a generation of isolated, unhealthy video-game junkies, or will tomorrow's world be peopled by computer-literate, resourceful, culturally tolerant, international communicators? Such questions can only be answered in the light of what we start with - our personal attitudes and beliefs.

Deborah Holder

LIFE AND DEATH

Size of child population (under 20)

1841 3 million

1911 14.4 million

1991 13 million

4 In 1841, children under 20 made up 47 per cent of the male population and 45 per cent of the female population. In 1991, the figures were 27 per cent and 24 per cent respectively. Boys' survival rate to age 20 is lower than that of girls, but the gap between them is narrowing.

Life expectancy at birth

MALES FEMALES

1841 40 yrs 42 yrs

1950-52 66 71

1990-92 73 79

4 Traditionally, infant mortality is seen as the key measure of child health:

Perinatal deaths per 1,000 births (under one week, including stillbirths)

1946-50 40

1970 23.5

1990 8

Deaths under 1 year per 1,000 births

1946-50 36

1970 18

1990 8

4 The main killer in infancy is cot death, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which accounts for one in three deaths between 28 days and one year. SIDS peaked in 1988 and then declined, falling most dramatically in 1992 (partly because of a health education campaign) and levelling out afterwards.

4 Subsequently, accidents - fire, drowning, traffic and cycling accidents - are the greatest child-killer, accounting for one in three deaths to children aged 5-14 and about two-thirds of deaths between 15-19. Children from lowest income groups have the highest risk of death for all types of accident.

Deaths due to accidents or violence, ages 5-9, per 1,000

1841-45 9.0

1946-50 0.8

1970 0.3

1990 0.2

4 Nearly 50 per cent of fatal accidents involving children are road accidents. Road fatalities (but not injuries) have declined in recent years; but, say Roadpeace (a charity for road traffic victims), the statistics are misleading, as there has been a dramatic fall in the number of children allowed out on the roads. Britain still has the worst rate of child casualties in Europe.

4 The other major cause of death among children and young people is suicide. This appears to have been increasing over the past decade, although the increase may reflect coroners' increased tendency to record suicides as such, rather than an actual increase.

Suicides and undetermined deaths

AGE MALES FEMALES

1984 0-14 31 21

15-24 517 136

1994 0-14 36 24

15-24 717 142

HEALTH

4 In 1995 the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS) brought together data aimed at answering the question "Are our children healthier?". It found that while generally children have been getting healthier since 1970, there are still a number of threats to their health. They merely come from different quarters.

4 Incidence of infectious diseases (the main cause of death 100 years ago) has declined dramatically. Between 1974 and 1992, measles fell by 91 per cent, whooping cough by 86 per cent and TB by 57 per cent. The medical world thanks immunisation and improved diagnosis and treatment.

4 One child in 600 still develops cancer before the age of 15. But although the incidence has not changed over past 20 years, fewer children die - and those that do are likely to live longer before dying. Cancer now accounts for about one in five deaths between ages 1-14, a rate which has fallen by 43 per cent over the last 20 years.

4 Some other illnesses, meanwhile, are on the increase. Respiratory disease now accounts for one in three GP visits. Hospital admissions for asthma for children aged 0-4 increased 13-fold between 1962 and 1985, and sixfold for those aged 5-14. Over the past 20 years, childhood asthma has doubled. It now affects about one in seven children.

POVERTY

4 Today's children are more likely to be poor than 15 years ago, according to Barnardo's. Its figures show that the number of children whose families were living at or below Income Support level was 1.5 million in 1979 and rose to 2.8 million in 1989. In 1989 almost a quarter of children in the UK were living in homes with no full-time wage-earner.

4 In addition, an inquiry by the homelessness pressure group, CHAR, due to be published next week, is expected to claim that homelessness among the young has risen dramatically in the past 10 years. Estimates vary as to the actual number of young people living on the streets, but a study of London's best-known homeless charity, Centrepoint, suggests that four homeless people in 10 may be aged 17 or under.

FAMILIES

4 In 1956-60, two marriages in 1,000 ended in divorce; in 1995, the figure was one in four. Most divorces occur between five and nine years after marriage, when the couple are aged between 25-29. If the trend continues, one in four children will see their parents divorce before they are 16, an experience shown in some studies to be more damaging even than the death of a parent. Daughters of divorced parents are more likely to marry young and divorce themselves; 30-40 per cent of fathers lose contact with their children within two to five years of divorce.

4 Single parenthood in general is on the increase, although it is debatable whether this in itself has an impact on children or whether correlating factors, such as unemployment, low wages, poor living conditions and insufficient childcare options, affect them more.

Percentage of children (under 16) being brought up by lone parents

1972 8%

1994 21%

4 The rising level of divorce may be taken to imply a fair amount of extra anguish for children growing up now, both for those whose parents divorce and for those who experience increased anxiety when their parents row. What needs to be set against this, however, is the unquantifiable suffering of children growing up in the shadow of chronically unhappy marriages.

4 Increasing equality of opportunity for men and women has had repercussions for children. Sixty-five per cent of women with dependent children are now working. For those with children under five, the number has risen over the past 10 years from 24 per cent to 47 per cent. Some 60 per cent of couples with dependent children both work.

EDUCATION

4 The common belief is that children are now leaving school less well- equipped academically than were their parents. The hard facts are almost impossible to pin down, though undoubtedly overall literacy and education standards have risen since before the war. Pessimists will point to last month's report suggesting that the average 11-year-old is two years behind the "expected" level in maths and 18 months behind in English. Optimists will pay more attention to the fact that the number of young people above the school-leaving age who are in full-time education almost doubled between 1980-1 and 1994. Similarly, this year's record GCSE and A-level pass rates have been attributed by some to exams getting easier. Others argue that the gradual rise across the decade represents a more serious approach to study from teenagers galvanised by fear of unemployment. It would be hard to prove either of those contentions conclusively, but there is one significant change in exam performance. Whereas girls passing at least one A-C grade GCSE (or equivalent) in the Fifties were outnumbered two to one by boys, they have now overtaken their male counterparts.

CULTURE AND ENTERTAINMENT

4 Technology, in the form of television, video and now home computers, has revolutionised children's leisure time. BBC television went live in 1936 (having broadcast on radio since 1922). Initially there were no programmes specifically for children, but when television returned after six years off-air during the war, it was with a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

4 More recently, there has been an increasing recognition and targeting of children as powerful consumers, and this has been marked by a boom in TV- linked merchandising. Significantly, there has also been a disappearance of age demarcations - the news delivers graphic detail to all ages; many controversial children's shows, like Power Rangers, are watched by children as young as three or four and by teenagers; daytime soaps like Home and Away and Neighbours are watched by under-10s, teenagers and adults; and shows aimed at adults, like The X Files, attract huge adolescent audiences.

4 In 1946, the year when the television licence was introduced, 15,560 licences were issued. Today, television ownership is almost universal, and video ownership is heading the same way.

Percentage of households with televisions, video recorders, telephones and home computers

TV PHONE VIDEO COMPUTER

1972 93% 42% 0% 0%

1994 99% 91% 77% 24%

4 Average weekly television viewing has actually declined among 4-15- year-olds, from 21 hrs 6 mins in 1986 to 19 hrs 12 mins in 1993. However, increased use of videos and video games more than accounts for the difference.

4 There is a general assumption that what children watch today is more violent than what previous generations watched. In fact, it depends when and what they watch. Pre-school television has changed very little and even television for the under-12s features many of the same old favourites. With four terrestrial channels now catering generously to children, however, plus cable in many areas, children are exposed to much more television in terms of quantity and thus to more variation in terms of quality. Children's favourites are not always popular with parents. Eighty-seven per cent of 11-15 year-olds in a recent survey said that they watched films rated unsuitable for their age, and 45 per cent said that they watched these films "a lot".

PLAY

4 The greatest change in children's play has been the move indoors and the shift from group games to individual pursuits. In the immediate post- war years, children played outside - parents were less worried about the dangers lurking outside their gate, and from the childrens' point of view there was little worth staying in for. There were few imported toys, few televisions, rationing still applied, and many toys were cobbled together at home. Popular games included home-made wooden go-karts, ball games, marbles and "had and he" (or tag).

4 By the 1970s, most households had televisions. Marketing aimed at children was beginning to take off, and character merchandising began to develop. The decade was marked by short-lived crazes like Clackers, Slinkies, Space Hoppers and Slime. Pop music was by this time a major pastime, and hi- fis, tapes and records accounted for a huge chunk of teenage spending.

4 In the 1990s children spend more time than ever at home. There has been a dramatic decline in supervised school sport, while video and computer games are increasingly popular - and often played alone. The marketing which surrounds such games now begins with the very young and is ever more sophisticated (as are the consumers themselves). Alarmists fear that the pressures of advertising and consumerism corrupt children, distorting their values towards unfettered materialism. The new technologies, however, also serve an educational purpose, and, from the child's point of view, are an addition to quality of life - ie, fun. The long-term health implications of their inactive lifestyles may give cause for some concern, but the effects are more likely to be felt in adulthood than in childhood.

SEX

4 Sexual experience is beginning earlier. Of young women currently aged 16-19, almost one in five (18.7%) has had sexual experience before her 16th birthday. For males the figure is higher, at 27.6%.

Average age for first sexual experience

BORN 1936-40 21

BORN 1966-77 17

4 Young people having their first sexual intercourse under the age of 16 are the least likely to use contraception. Abortions and teenage pregnancies are thus a fairly reliable indicator of the increasingly early onset of sexual experience (although the 1968 figure for abortions, based on notifications received, is unlikely to reflect the true level of occurrence).

Number of abortions

1968 22,256

1971 126,774

1994 166,976

Teenage mothers

UNDER 15 YRS 15-19 YRS

1946 39 24,777

1971 266 82,375

1983 199 53,860

1994 279 *

*no comparable figure (data-gathering method changed)

DRUGS

4 A recent survey of drinking, smoking and illicit drug use among 15- 16-year-olds in Britain revealed a dramatic increase in drug experimentation between 1989 and 1996. (The 1989 figures, from a Health Education Authority survey, are not always exactly comparable, but are shown in brackets where appropriate.)

Illicit drug use among 15-16-year-olds

Cannabis 40.6% (15%)

Cannabis on more than 40 occasions 10.3%

Glues and solvents 20.4% (2%)

LSD 14.4%

Amphetamines 13.3% (1%)

Ecstasy 9.2% boys; 7.3% girls

Heroin 1.5% boys; 1.1% girls (0.5%)

Cocaine 2.4% boys; 2.8% girls (1%)

4 In 1995 the Royal College of Physicians warned that alcohol posed as great a threat to child welfare as drugs - partly in terms of children's own drinking habits but also in terms of their being at risk as a result of adult drinking. The report found that alcohol consumption by children and young adults is at a worryingly high level: 34 per cent of 15-year- olds and 59 per cent of 17-year-olds drink at least once a week; 38 per cent of 15-17-year-olds claim to have been "very drunk" more than once in the past year.

VIOLENCE

4 Violence committed against and by children is extremely difficult to measure and compare across the generations. Differences in attitudes, the degree of reporting and changes in policy and methodology make statistics difficult to interpret. Many crimes go unreported.

4 Whether children are at greater risk of violence is hard to prove but parents themselves are convinced that this is the case. A recent Mori poll found that 85 per cent of adults believe it is less safe to play outside than it used to be; 66 per cent worry about "stranger danger", 60 per cent about traffic, 49 per cent about drugs; 44 per cent said their children never or hardly ever played outside unsupervised. Whether because they are not allowed outside so much or for some other reason, the number of children murdered in England and Wales has more or less halved over the past 15 years.

Children murdered

UNDER 1 YR 1-14 YRS

1978 29 63

1983 15 30

1988 21 33

1993 15 24

4 Children are more likely to experience violence at home than outside their front door. In 1993, nearly 34,300 children were registered by social services in England and Wales, either because they were suffering actual abuse or for being at risk - that's three in every 1,000 children under 18. In addition, one estimate has it that more than 700,000 children in Britain are affected by serious physical violence between their parents.

4 Barnardo's say that it is impossible to say whether today's children are more likely to be abused than were their parents. In the 1980s, the number of reported cases trebled, but much of this can be attributed to greater willingness to acknowledge the existence of child abuse.

4 Another worry is child involvement in crime. A quarter of youth crime is committed by about 3 per cent of young offenders. The peak age for known offending is 15 for girls and 18 for boys. The most common offences are theft and handling stolen goods. Many minor crimes go unreported or are not cleared up. The figures below, however, of teenagers convicted of crime, are the best indicator of the level of youth crime. They are per 100,000 in each age group and therefore take into account any demographic changes. They show that the crime rate for boys has fallen while that for girls is rising.

Number of offenders per 100,000

AGE MALES FEMALES

1985 10-13 3,800 1,100

14-17 10,600 2,100

1988 10-13 2,600 500

14-17 9,400 1,700

1994 10-13 2,300 800

14-17 8,900 2,300

PROSPECTS

4 Perhaps the greatest change for the worse in childhood has been the thought of the adulthood that will succeed it. Unlike previous generations, children today are unlikely to have experienced war first-hand, and most take it for granted that they will not do so. However, there is a widespread fear of environmental disaster. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace receive sackfuls of mail from anxious children.

4 British society is growing older. Young people are already more heavily outnumbered by adults than their parents were as children. By 2011 there may be more pensioners than children and today's children will have to shoulder the burden. Anxiety about unemployment might therefore be less appropriate than anxiety about overwork.

4 As a further worry, the nation's health is likely to be affected by the higher levels of inactivity resulting from changed leisure patterns and the perceived dangers of going outside the house. Heart disease, and obesity and its attendant ills, are the most obvious dangers.

4 In addition, the growing anti-immunisation lobby says that we will pay for an immunisation programme which may have given short-term protection from infection but has taken its toll on our immune systems, now weak, vulnerable and resistant to over-used antibiotics. The BSE crisis has raised fears about hormones and other chemicals used in the production of food. And there are now over 3,000 children in the UK who have a mother who has tested positive for HIV - over half are under 10. The number will increase to 4,000 by 1997 and is expected to continue to rise.

4 Will today's children be poorer or sicker or more miserable than today's adults in later life? There is no hard evidence to support such fears; but the anxieties outlined above remain real ones, based on real possibilities, and, as such, cast a real shadow over countless otherwise carefree childhoods.

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