Whether they are children of the famous or - God forbid - stars in thei r own right, Hollywood kids get a mighty strange upbringing. Victoria McKee reports
The star-kissed life of a Hollywood kid begins at the "baby shower", a quaint American custom where a pregnant woman is showered with presents from her girlfriends for her unborn baby. In Hollywood, the gifts are likely to be solid silver rattles, custom-made cradles trimmed with guipure lace and complete wardrobes by Baby Dior.

Then come the birthday parties - an orgy of one-upmanship. As Jackie Collins, whose latest novel is called Hollywood Kids, says, "You wouldn't have a clown to entertain - you'd have several large cats from the Los Angeles Zoo." The real point of Hollywood kids' parties is to allow Hollywood parents to get together and network. As Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, discovered early in life, "You always feel part of the machinery."

Whether they are the children of stars, or child stars themselves, the life of Hollywood kids is bizarre - and Hollywood parents help to make it so.

The star-maker machinery includes formidable phalanxes of etiquette ("curtsy, Desiree"), elocution and exercise teachers plus the inevitable therapists. One of the many child therapists kept busy in Hollywood observes, "These kids have schedules as if they're running the country - they have no time to play." So Hollywood kids' houses have immaculate lawns, unthreatened by soccer balls or skipping ropes and protected from more sinister mauraders by high, wrought-iron gates.

Sometimes a famous bloodline provides a happy passport through life. Michael Wayne, eldest son of John, is pleased as punch at being part of what Steve McQueen's son Chad dubs "The Lucky Sperm Club", and cheerfully concedes, "I know I probably wouldn't have been producing my first film at the age of 27 if I hadn't been John Wayne's son." But we know from Mommy Dearest, the book written by Joan Crawford's daughter, Christina, what it felt like to live in the shadow of a tyrannical star.

The relationship is a little different when the child is the star - and the breadwinner - and the parent is cast as doting mentor. Both Macauley Culkin's father and Brooke Shields's mother won formidable reputations for protecting the business interests of their children.

In the three-part Carlton TV series Hollywood Kids, the first part of which was aired on ITV last night, the mother of Shane Sweet, the nine-year-old star of the television series Married With Children, talks to him about smoking cigarettes for an audition as they glide through their gates in a stretch limousine. Jessica James, an aspiring singer with a penchant for sequinned mini-dresses, has a father/manager who encourages her to strain her emergent voice to the utmost in a grating, Janis Joplin stylethat cannot be good for tender 12-year-old vocal cords.

Gary Coleman, the diminutive child star of the television comedy Diff'rent Strokes, is bitter about what he regards as his exploitation by Hollywood - and his parents. Coleman, now 26, whose endearingly petite physique stems from a lack of kidney function rather than natural childhood cuteness, made an estimated $24m playing a little boy until he was 18 and ended up with nothing, he says. "I wasn't benefiting as much as everyone else was from my talent, and I regret that they [my parents] cared m ore about managing me than about being my parents."

Paul Petersen, himself a former child actor, runs A Minor Consideration, a support group for the majority of child actors whose adult careers don't live up to their early promise. He says of Coleman: "Within two years of ... becoming a television star, hisjanitor father and practical nurse mother became his managers - bereft of any knowledge, no experience, and getting 20 per cent of the gross."

But young Shane Sweet seems blissfully happy with his "Mommy Dearest", despite her obviously aggressive ambition for him, and Elijah Wood, the now 13-year-old star of North, says his mother keeps his feet on the ground. "I'm like a normal kid at home," he insists. "Anything that I shouldn't be doing I'll get punished for, which is good, and I'm very happy, cos if I didn't get punished for things like that, I'd be, you know, Mr Free Man that could do anything."

Jilly Hafenrichter, producer of Hollywood Kids, found herself filled with admiration for Wood. "He was like a wise old man. He knew exactly what he was doing and was a huge professional. We realised that these kids have to deal with things that other kids don't."

The pecking order in the hypothetical Hollywood playground is as brutally hierarchical as that in the studios. "The children of the producers know they're better than the children of the stars," says Judy Lewis, lovechild of Clark Gable and Loretta Young, who didn't know Gable was her father until after he was dead but will never forget their only meeting, when she was 15, and he kissed her. Although she looks eerily like Gable, Lewis used to be admonished by her mother, "Remember, when you 're in public you're a reflection of me."

If anyone looked likely to have a nightmarish Hollywood childhood it was Lorna Luft, daughter of Judy Garland. But despite the dual burden of growing up in the shadow of her mother and an elder sister, Liza Minnelli, who also became a legend in her own lifetime, Lorna Luft remembers being happy. She says that Garland, whose life ended with an overdose of sleeping pills in a London bathroom when Lorna was only 16, was a wonderful mother even though she was always searching for that childhood she lost somewhere over the rainbow.

"Although she grew up in fantasyland, she wanted us to understand reality and was as honest with us as she could be," Luft recalls. "Of course, mine wasn't really a Hollywood childhood - we lived partly in England and New York and other places, and I go t to see things that other children only dreamt of, because my mother loved having my brother Joey and me around so that she could play with us and do all the stuff she didn't get to do because she was raised in a studio.

"In the Sixties, what she did was frowned on. She wasn't at home baking cookies. If she'd tried she would have burnt them or we would have had a dough fight because my mother was very much a child. She was the one who wanted to go on the roller-coasters 19 times, not us!"

Interestingly, Luft chooses not to take her own children (a 10-year-old son, Jesse, and a four-year-old daughter, Vanessa) on the road with her. They stay in Hollywood with their father, the record producer Jake Hooker (whom she recently divorced), because she wants them to have the stability she lacked. "The kids' first day of school is always difficult. My first day was every six months - I don't have anybody of whom I can say this is my childhood friend from school."

By its first birthday a Hollywood kid should have its name, however strange (such as Moon Unit Zappa and Kimba Eastwood), down for the best private schools. "I've known people who have registered foetuses," says Luft, who has sent Jesse to the Lycee Francais so that he starts wearing a uniform and learns the sort of discipline not afforded by the Beverly Hills art school he used to attend. She wants Vanessa to go there, too.

"Jesse's school was a free-for-all," she explains. "I went to British schools with uniforms, and I remember really liking that structure." She is determined not to let her children grow up as Hollywood kids, even though they live there, "because America is a country of excess - that's what our kids are learning, so they're never happy. And Hollywood is the worst place for excess."

Luft says she fervently hopes her children don't follow in the family footsteps, which seem fated to lead towards the footlights. Why not, if she is as happy as she claims to be in the business that there's no business like? "Because this is a mean, cruel business based on nothing but rejection," she answers. "You have to be a certain kind of person to want to do this. I mean, can you imagine people wanting to put on make-up and costumes and become other people? And for what?"

She claps her hands slowly together. "For that. That's crazy, isn't it?"