Children are getting older younger and it worries us. The trouble is, adults can't agree on what being grown-up means
IT'S official: the child star Macaulay Culkin, who scooped millions from playing a naughty kid in every parent's worst nightmare film, Home Alone, has grown up. He has married his teenage fiancee, Rachel Miner. They are both just 17. In the same week, Parliament decided that 16-year- old homosexuals could have sexual relations, encouraging letter writers to the Daily Telegraph to question a world in which boys could be too young to smoke or drink but old enough to be sodomised. Finally, a week of uncertainty about childhood and maturity ended with newspaper pictures of the 14-year-old Elizabeth Jagger - daughter of Mick and Jerry - who was revealed to have spent a night "unhindered by parental supervision" at a Vivienne Westwood party where she "seemingly raised a cigarette to her lips". Pictured in her plunging party dress, she looked no less adult than her mother, Jerry Hall; and readers were invited to be as complicit as party guests in examining her assets.

Professor Henry Higgins, in My Fair Lady, sighed: "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" Now the question demanded by society is: "Why can't a child be more like an adult?" For however fondly we paint a picture of an age of innocence, and however strenuously we talk about protecting the rights of children, it is becoming harder to resist the pressure to get older younger.

What are the defining marks of adulthood in our society? Does it come down to physical and psychological - and sexual - maturity; to social skills; to an ability to take responsibility? Does the state have the final say, with its laws setting the age at which a teenager may drink, smoke, drive, vote, and fight for his country? Or is the boundary being drawn by the media and other cultural forces? In short, who decides when a child becomes an adult?

There are some elements about which it is possible to be objective. We know that girls and boys are generally physically capable of sexual reproduction well below the age of 16, though their bodies are still growing. There are anomalies: some children mature faster than others. Research has demonstrated, for instance, that girls who are obese may mature much more quickly, leading to an assumption that they are adult in other ways.

PSYCHOLOGICALLY, the first seeds of adulthood are sown early. In experiments conducted by Heinz Wimmer and Josef Perner, of the University of Salzburg, Austria, young children were shown to develop a "theory of mind" at around the age of five. The "Sally-Ann" test, using a simple methodology with two dolls and a marble, demonstrated that an understanding of false beliefs - when other people are telling lies - is the key to comprehending other people and one's place in relation to them; it may be influenced by how many siblings a child has and how wide his vocabulary is.

Studies by Robin Dunbar, professor of biological anthropology at University College, London, showed that language is one of the most important factors in cementing and manipulating relationships. While apes bond by grooming other members of their group, humans - who usually have social contact with around 150 acquaintances and friends - use small talk or gossip to "groom". Children, as every unwary parent knows, cotton on to the rewards of flattery quickly. Similarly, those who can manipulate language may find the transition to adulthood comes far more easily. These are the stepping stones.

But usually there remains a gap between physical and emotional maturity. A survey of young couples who married in the late 1980s revealed that 19 per cent of the teenage brides had separated from their husbands within three years. Julia Cole, a spokeswoman for the marriage guidance service Relate, says that those who marry under the age of 21 put themselves in a "high risk of failure" category because of the enormous social and emotional changes which take place between the ages of 16 and 25.

Underlying much of our concern about young people is the question of sexuality: what they are exposed to and what they do - whether with each other or with older people. No one disputes that they are presented with far more sexual imagery and obtain far more sexual knowledge - if only in theory - at an earlier age than in the past, though there are differences of opinion about its effect.

Peter Luff, a Conservative MP who has spoken out against the sexual content of magazines aimed at young girls, believes there is increasing concern about what he sees as the erosion of the age of innocence - and says children themselves regret it. He noticed widespread support for his view, though it was attacked by some liberals: "I was intrigued that nearly all the serious papers were sympathetic; it suggested there is a deeper concern, and my theory is that journalists who have children don't like the pressure they are under to grow up too fast.

"I don't regard myself as being terribly old-fashioned; some believe we are going back to an age of purity, but I don't see any sign of it. There's more affluence and children have greater access to adult experiences, with the money to go out and enjoy themselves. Media competition is a huge factor; I was brought up on Bill and Ben, but the scene has changed. What's interesting is that programmes such as Teletubbies have been hugely popular with older children - there's an innocence about the thing which obviously appeals to them. There is still something in children that yearns for peace and quiet."

Parents and teachers who try to set boundaries for children have become largely disempowered, he believes. "They feel impotent and unable to express their views."

But the author A N Wilson, whose new novel, Dream Children, tackles the subject of paedophilia, believes that we are over-concerned about the dangers involved in sexual development. He says children are often forced to keep their emotional development under wraps because they are spoken for and about, rather than consulted.

"I didn't set out to write a book about paedophiles, but I feel that what is missing in the tabloid treatments is the feelings of children," he says. "It's assumed, in a sub-Dickensian way, that they don't have any. Rather than tackling it full frontal, I've taken a rather oblique path, but it is a disturbing subject and therefore impossible not to write a disturbing book. I hope I will never censor myself because of fear, particularly about this subject, because I feel we have turned into rather an ugly lynch mob."

THE LAST area in which there is widespread confusion is that of children's "rights". Are they the same as those of adults? Do they have the right to be consulted in the same way? They may, by and large, be unwilling to knuckle down under the dictate of elders and they may seek adult privileges; but should they do so without the readiness to cope emotionally and socially with attendant responsibilities?

This week the MP Ashok Kumar plans to introduce a Ten Minute Rule Bill designed to give teenagers and children more input into council policy. Other initiatives, such as that by the Children's Society to decriminalise under-age prostitution (by recognising that children who are picked up and cautioned should be helped and monitored, rather than merely prosecuted), are also attempting to redefine the boundaries.

Relate's Julia Cole believes that it's not sex, nor physicality, nor intellect, that determines if a child is ready to make the leap into adulthood. "It is about understanding that you are not the centre of the world and that you have responsibility in life, and that you have a need for other people. Strangely, we imagine maturity is something about being independent and strong, but it's actually about understanding that you need each other."