In a culture that equates young with beautiful and sexy, childhood is becoming a thing of the past. The Spice Girls, all lipstick and loud mouths, have replaced Barbie dolls, 11-year-old boys are into Nike trainers and CK underpants. What are we doing to our kids?
WHEN Judy James dropped off her daughter Annabel at a party recently, she was shocked when the young hostess opened the door wearing a revealing halter-neck dress and full make-up. Annabel is eight years old and the birthday-girl was turning nine. Judy was already perturbed by Annabel's schoolfriends. "They were overly mature in a lot of ways - very tough, very self-contained, very precocious. The one who threw the party was like a mini 20-year-old."

Annabel is, after all, still a little girl, says her mother: "She used to love playing with her Barbie dolls. But at school it was thought of as babyish, and she felt so guilty that she stopped playing with them, even when she was on her own. Annabel loves the Spice Girls, but in her class they are fancying Boyzone already. It terrified me."

Judy moved her daughter to a different school; Annabel plays with her Barbie dolls again. But, like many parents, Judy still feels beleaguered by the external influences that are turning Annabel into a rising-nine- going-on-nineteen. "In a lot of ways I feel I'm dealing with similar problems as parents of teenagers; a lot of other mothers say the same thing," she says.

As the social anthropologist Kate Fox points out, the days when young ladies put their hair up and let their hems down only when they were officially "out" are long gone. "Today we have a long and ill-defined phase of adolescence with its own attendant problems and disorders," she says.

The early onset of adolescence can lead to some extreme cases. Last week in Bedfordshire a boy of 12 took the day off school to see his baby son born; meanwhile there is an ongoing court case investigating the alleged rape of a nine-year-old girl by 10- and 11-year-old classmates in west London. But many parents are alarmed by more everyday manifestations of sexual precocity.

Even the Spice Girls, with their army of teeny fans, are less than squeaky- clean. Parents are disconcerted, hearing their eight-year-old croon "If you wanna be my lover...". And the Spice Girls' book, Girl Power, had to be moved out of children's book departments when parents complained. "I'd love everyone to think of me as a sexy bitch," confides Baby Emma modestly; while one of the essential SG qualifications, boasts Mel B, is a "foul mouth".

"Thankfully, it all goes right over Annabel's head," says Judy James. "She still thinks sex just means kissing, but she is addicted to American sitcoms and likes to copy the girls she sees on television. I can't help feeling uneasy about some of the clothes I see on sale for little girls of eight and nine - bras and tiny crop tops, miniskirts and tight leggings. And this is not on a street market stall. It's Marks & Spencers and John Lewis."

Many high street stores now include such items in their children's departments. But Marks & Spencers is indignant at the notion that its range is anything but wholesome. A spokeswoman points out that the design of all its lines is developed in consultation with parents and children. "We wouldn't sell anything we were uncomfortable with. Sales are very good, so the demand is there, and we make sure that the materials and style are appropriate to the age group."

BUT LITTLE girls not only dress like grown-ups, they copy them in other ways. Girls' magazines such as this month's Sugar ("bustin' with boy babes"), featuring "Luscious Leonardo: a titanic babe if ever there was one!", are aimed at a slightly older market but are certainly read by under-11s.

Boys grow up surprisingly fast, too. A year ago Emma Southgate's 11-year- old son, Edward, was asking for toys; last Christmas it was Calvin Klein underpants. "It's to do with image," says his mother. "He has just started secondary school, and they want labels. It's Nike Air trainers rather than Reeboks. I didn't even know he was aware of such things, but he was delighted with his Calvin Klein pants. At his age, they see brand names on television, and the ads are targeting children more and more."

Is it any surprise that in a culture which celebrates shopping and sex, small children become preoccupied with them? "Pop music, advertising, television, magazines, even the early-evening news present sexuality in a much more brazen way," says one primary school teacher, herself the mother of three daughters, the youngest aged 11. "Advertising and marketing influences try to make children into little adults, and many of my youngest daughter's contemporaries already have both feet in the young-adult camp. I don't think we are a child-friendly society any more."

At school the children talk about their boyfriends and girlfriends from the age of eight. "We have school discos and they feed in the message that this culture is fine. They encourage children to wear the latest clothes and hear the latest music."

However fast children may mature physically, they are still children, warns Michele Elliott, mother of two and a child psychologist, who is director of the charity Kidscape. "Even though some children do develop physically very quickly, there is no evidence that they also get the mindset of older children. How could they? They haven't got the experience. Children's minds in adult bodies is very unnerving and confusing, particularly when we throw images at them which say that young equals beautiful and sexy."

Children who don't keep up get the equally upsetting message that they are backward and babyish. "We should be ashamed of ourselves for doing this to children," says Ms Elliott. "We are quickening the pace, pushing them before they are ready, and leaving them with nothing to look forward to."

Advertising has a lot to answer for, she says. "It's just not cool to promote the idea of children being kids. Advertisers claim to be responding to the market, but advertising to children is entirely marketing-led. We have made being mature and sexually active cool. We need to celebrate childhood. After all, they have the rest of their lives to be adult." The child-care expert Penelope Leach, author of Children First, adds: "If you saturate the teen market in lingerie and so on, where do you then look? Towards children."

She is, however, wary of saying that parents should resist too rigidly, because peer pressure for pre-teens and adolescents is a potent force. "When your eight-year-old is brimming with tears because everyone else in her class has a bra, you have to remember that when children ostracise other children because they don't have the right clothes or bag, what matters most to the child is fitting in. We have created these social groups and we can't penalise children for fitting in."

GEOFF DENCH, of the Institute of Community Studies, believes that the idea of youth as being desirable above anything else is a disservice to the young. "There is a stampede among politicians to respond to what young people want, as if it is important," he says. "In the short term, yes, it makes them feel important, but it puts too heavy a focus on youth." Mr Dench believes there should be a progression to adulthood so that it carries position and prestige. "When young people start to believe that there is no life after 30, what do they have to look forward to? They need to feel respect for older people in order to retain their own self-respect."

Not all parents are panicking, however. One mother reports: "I wanted to borrow some nail varnish from my 13-year-old daughter and she hauled out a bag of make-up so huge I could hardly lift it. Meanwhile my six- year-old is pleading with me for hipster trousers. But, in fact, they've got common sense. The older one and her friends are always talking about how the Spice Girls are tacky and how All Saints, who wear baggy clothes in subdued colours, are much better. They'd much rather look like All Saints, who are groovy. My younger daughter would like to be a Spice Girl in the same way she'd want to be a princess - it's no different from all the old fantasies."

"I think it's only natural to look forward," adds a resigned Emma Southgate. "Edward, at 11, is already thinking about driving lessons and where he will take his girlfriend when he has one later on." She points out that the Walkman, which is a must-have for tiny-tots today, came on to the market when she was 16. "If it had been available when I was eight I'd have wanted one, definitely! Children today may have the trappings of adulthood, but if all the things they have now had been around when we were young, we'd have wanted them, too."