What kids want and what they get
Clothes and crisps, toys and fizzy drinks, fast food and magazines - and cigarettes, alcohol, lottery tickets, video arcades, drugs. The children's economy is booming, in ways good and bad. Six children, from a child film star to11-year-old Sam, pictured in the bedroom of her council flat, tell us of their lives. By Lesley Gerard. Photographs by Christine Sullivan
Saturday 21 September 1996
Sam's bedroom is painted grey and white. It used to be pink and white until she wrote on the wall in fat marker pen, "Sam Loves Anthony", in big black letters. Only grey paint would cover the mess.
"My mum was really angry when I did that," she says. "Anthony was my boyfriend from primary school. He was two-timing me with my friend. Then he chucked me because I wouldn't kiss him."
She shares the room with Danielle, and there is just enough space for their two single beds, side by side. Under the window is Sam's stereo, a television and video player. The family has satellite TV and four televisions - one for every bedroom, and one in the lounge.
Sam has a selection of favourite videos tapes: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Teen Wolf, Beauty and the Beast and The Sound of Music, which she and Danielle once watched five times in a row.
At the age of 11, she seems to be a fully paid-up member of the modern dance culture. She enjoys house, pure swing, garage and gangsta rap. A toy box, also in the room, seems sadly depleted. "I don't have many cuddly toys any more," she explains - Rufus, the family dog, a cross between a boxer and Staffordshire bull terrier, has chewed most of them up.
The photographs on the walls include snapshots taken when she and her sister have been on their annual holiday to the countryside, organised by the single parents' charity, Gingerbread.
Her builder father, who split up with Tracey when Danielle was only months old, sees them irregularly. "He used to give them pocket money," Tracey says, "but now he can't because he is paying maintenance. He takes them ice-skating sometimes, and helps out buying them clothes." The family now lives on pounds 170 a week income support, which also includes disability allowance for Leroy, a chronic diabetic, and Tracey's allowance as his carer.
Tracey's boyfriend, Elvis, bought Sam a gold chain for her last birthday, as well as an expensive crayon set, which she keeps in her mother's bedroom and uses to make cards for friends and relatives. Her mother bought her a ring and a watch, "which I have never taken off since". She also had a pounds 5 book token, with which she bought Roald Dahl books. "When I get spare money, I like to spend it on fruity bubble bath," she adds. "I spend hours in the bath."
Sometimes Sam and Danielle are teased by the other children in the flats: "Once they asked me why I didn't have nice clothes," says Sam. "But it doesn't bother me if they call me names."
"It bothers me," Tracey interrupts. "It makes me hurt and angry. I can see that the kids with mothers and working fathers living together have nicer clothes and more toys than mine. But my kids are cared for and clean. I get them as much as I can. There's a lot of love here. We're doing OK."
Sam says that when she grows up she wants to be a fire-fighter. Her brother wants to be a lawyer or an accountant.
Hal Scardino 11, is the American star of last Christmas's successful film for children, `The Indian in the Cupboard'. Ever since he was eight, he has lived in Kensington with his father, the journalist Albert Scardino, and mother, Marjorie, a publishing executive with the `Economist'. He attends a private day school and receives pounds 4 pocket money a week
Some reviewers have called him the "next Macaulay Culkin"; they say he can "carry a movie". And in his next film, Marvin's Room, he co-stars with Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. Such celebrity, combined with his privileged background as the youngest child of upper-class Americans, might lead one to expect a precocious brat.
But Hal Scardino turns out to be a shy, complex child, a curious mixture of astuteness and innocence. The only movie memorabilia in his bedroom is a photograph of him with Indian's director, Frank Oz, and a silver picture frame from Streep. The room is a shrine to his favourite football team, Manchester United. He spends his weekly pounds 4 allowance on football magazines.
"It started as a bit of a joke," he says, surveying the Eric Cantona posters that adorn every wall, including in his bathroom. "A friend of mine at school supports Arsenal, and I always used to tease him that United were better. Then I started reading about them, getting their magazines, and I got really interested. They're more exciting than other teams; they buy more players. And Eric Cantona is nice to watch, he's special - though when he got into trouble for kicking that fan, it was his own fault: he should never have let that person get into his head."
He claims not to know how much he earns from films, only that it is being invested in a trust fund. But, if he doesn't care about money, he has a shrewd nose for a financial opportunity. His father recalls: "This past spring, when Manchester United shares were at pounds 2.30 or pounds 2.50, he asked me if we could buy shares, and I said no. I thought they were too high. Then they won the championship and the stock soared to pounds 4.60. Hal was too astute to say I told you so."
Unlike many boys of his age, however, he has no ambition to be a footballer. "When I grow up," he declares, "I want to be a postman, because I like walking and being out and just kinda like giving people parcels and presents. It might be nice to make the odd film in between, as well."
He was born in Savannah, Georgia, but spent most of his early childhood in New York, where his father worked for the New York Times and then as PR to Mayor David Dinkins. A chance meeting with a talent scout led to his first film role, a supporting part in Searching For Bobby Fischer, about chess. He hadn't wanted to come to England, and the early days were difficult. "We visited lots of schools here, but I hated all of them. The one I am at now was the one I hated least. They seemed strict and old-fashioned. In New York, the teachers don't yell at you, no matter what you do. Here, there are all these rules, and you have to wear a uniform. I'd rather go to school in jeans."
A year later, producers were looking to cast the lead in The Indian in the Cupboard, and the casting director remembered Hal. "They knew we'd moved to London, but they took four months to track us down, even though we were in the telephone book. I thought it was a bit stupid that they didn't look there first," he says, giggling.
"In the first week on the set, I was very homesick and missing my mom. I was crying and I didn't want to come out of the trailer. I didn't realise that everyone was relying on me in this film. Then my dad said I had to pull myself together, and after that it was cool. The hardest thing was getting back to reality and school. They split the movie up into so many different parts, 15 seconds a take, so that you don't have to concentrate for long. It's not that difficult."
It is hard to equate this modest, intensely private and sometimes evasive child with the animated character on the screen. Hal himself cannot explain it easily: "When I see myself on film, or read about myself in an article, I feel like it's not me - I'm someone different."
Compliments embarrass him, fawning reviewers make him blush, and he's likely to clam up if an adult is either sharp or condescending. He didn't like De Niro: "He's not one of those people that are nice and kind. He thinks of himself as a big, important person; he thinks he doesn't need to say `hi' to anyone. That's rude. But Meryl Streep was really nice and normal, like a friend."
Following football may be his way of gaining acceptance in a strange environment. He was teased at school after the release of The Indian in the Cupboard and he didn't like it. "My classmates are all right now, but sometimes, when I'm in the corridor, someone will say lines from the film at me."
His parents are fiercely protective, and Albert believes that living in England has shielded him from the confusion of Hollywood. "We want him to enjoy his childhood," he says. "He can decide later whether he wants to be a movie star or a postman."
Superhero, aged 5
Charlie Hawkins, aged five, shares a bedroom with his brother George, 11. He receives 50 pence a week pocket money from his grandfather. But each month, his mother spends pounds 35-pounds 40 on toys and treats, and another pounds 45 a month on sweets and fizzy drinks. The family lives in lslington, north London
Charlie leaps through the air, trying his superhero high kick. "Let's play Power Rangers!" he yells, whirling a space-age sword around a bedroom stacked high with toys, videotapes of Disney classics, cuddly animals and puppets. Action men, Fisher Price games, model monkeys and Hungry Hippos spill from a plastic toy chest. Under the bed is a second-hand guitar and a keyboard - he cannot play either - and his treasured collection of bottle tops. He also collects childrens' watches, although he has yet to learn to tell the time.
Charlie is a consumer, an ad-man's dream. He has full Arsenal and Barcelona strips. His T-shirts, even his socks, are themed with characters from TV shows: The X-Men, Spiderman, Sooty and Sweep, and his all-time favourite, Power Rangers.
"If I had all the money in the world," he says, "I'd buy a new watch and a camper van for me, my mum and my brother George to go on holiday. And for Christmas, I'd like a really big computer, bigger than my brother's. It would do everything and cost lots and lots - as much as pounds 20."
His mother, a part-time librarian, does not have all the money in the world. George and Charlie have different fathers. Both men pay maintenance and have regular contact. "I miss my dad," says Charlie, "but I don't mind him not living with us because he and my mum used to shout at each other."
Between them, Charlie and George have hundreds of pounds' worth of toys, which his mother can ill afford. "I don't have a lot myself," she admits. "I go out very rarely, perhaps four times a year." She says she doesn't want them to miss out or to have less than other boys. "You want the children to have the things they like. You hope when you buy them something nice it will make them happy. But sometimes I worry that I'm trying to compensate for something, or that I'm making them selfish. Then again, when I have to say no, I can't help feeling guilty."
Sarah Marshall, 14, lives with her sister and parents in the Suffolk village of Newbourn, and attends the local school for girls. She receives pounds 5 a week pocket money for clearing horse manure from the fields. Her mother works for Ipswich council, her father is a civilian worker in the police force. She owns her own horse and breeds gerbils
"Being 14 can be horrible. Adults ignore your opinions," says Sarah. "There was this time when I went into hospital to have a mole removed, and the doctor spent the whole time explaining it to my mother. He didn't look at me once. I wanted to scream, `Talk to me - I'm the one having the operation'."
Her bedroom is neat and tidy. "My grandma cleaned it before you arrived," she admits candidly. "Normally, you would find left-over Pot Noodle containers and curry plates under the bed, and Smash Hits magazines, records and art work over the floor for my parents to trip over." Posters of her favourite Britpop bands adorn the walls: Oasis, Blur, Boyzone and her particular favourites, PJ and Duncan. She hasn't got a boyfriend: "They tend to see me as a friend and call me `mate'."
She is allowed to go out once a week to the Rollerink, but she must be home by 11pm. "I'm sure my parents don't let me go out with much money because they're worried about me spending it on alcohol or cigarettes or worse, though I wouldn't. I know people who smoke and drink, some who say take drugs, but I don't. My parents would be hysterical."
She has a strawberry-roan horse called Rumple, and just today has taken delivery of a bigger mare called Cat, a present from her parents. Her last big present before this was a bike worth pounds 130, for her birthday. "When I feel down," she says, "I go for a ride on my horse to the river and think." Or she goes to her caravan at the back of her house, where she keeps gerbils. "The caravan is my real place to escape. Many people don't realise how intelligent gerbils are; they can fall in love with each other."
The caravan has a shabby old sofa and old chairs, and smells, predictably, of sawdust and gerbils. There is no television: "The gerbils wouldn't like TV."
There is a phrase among today's teenagers: "social meltdown". It represents the shame and scorn that adolescents pour on their peers who do not conform to their brand-name/designer dress code. Sarah knows all about social meltdown: "My family isn't poor, but we're not as well off as some of the girls at school. Some of them get pounds 50 a month pocket money, and extra for clothes. They think it's important to have Lee or Levi jeans and Reebok sports gear, but I don't. I often shop in charity shops.
"I used to be painfully shy. I let it crush me. Then one day I thought, `This cannot go on, I have got to try and be myself,' and I began to open out."
Sometimes the other girls call her a misfit. "They used to sing this song by Pulp called `Misshapes' every time I walked into the classroom. I went out and bought the record and decided I liked the words. Still, it will probably always remind me of school."
Oliver Bowles, nine, came to England from South Africa after his parents split up six years ago. Trudy, his mother, is secretary to a company director. His father is a coin dealer in South Africa. Oliver lives with his mother and grandmother in Grantham, Lincolnshire. He receives pounds 1 a week pocket money. His mother spends about pounds 15 a week on treats
Oliver dreams of being a time traveller: "When I'm bored in the day, I think of stepping through a hole in an invisible wall. I go through this tunnel, full of wobbly colours. As I come out the other end, I see shrubs and rocks and swamps all about. Then I see something rushing through the trees. There's a flash of teeth, I hear a hiss. It's a Stegosaurus - my favourite dinosaur, because it only eats plants. I never go further than that in case I meet a T-Rex. That would be too frightening."
Dinosaurs, and their history, are his passion, together with drawing, making Plasticine models, building Lego castles and his treasured pet, Hammy the Hamster. He wants to be an archaeologist when he grows up. "There are all sorts of explanations for why dinosaurs died out," he explains patiently. "Some say there was a huge blizzard, others that the mountains came and crashed together, or that a huge hole opened in the earth and all the dinosaurs fell through it. I don't like the crashing rocks theory: I don't like the thought of the blood on the rocks."
When he remembers South Africa, he thinks of a big house with a swimming pool, and the sun always shining. His father visits England up to three times a year, bringing big bags of sweets and special-edition Krugerrands. Oliver keeps the coins in little velvet boxes. "I don't look at them all the time, but when I do, I remember my dad.
"When my mum does the lottery, sometimes she lets me pick the numbers. If we won, I'd buy the best Lego castle, which costs pounds 70. Then I'd take my mum and my nan to Disney World, because everyone who wins the lottery does that. Then we'd go to see President Clinton at the White House. I think he looks very nice, and he tells funny jokes. And after that I'd go to Greenland to see Father Christmas to find out why he never quite brings you what you ask for on your list. Then we'd go back to South Africa for a holiday. Mum says not to get my hopes up until it happens, but it could, couldn't it?"
A mother's love
Four years ago, the three sons of Carol Evans learnt that she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer
and had been given just six months to live. Their 35-year-old mother underwent radiotherapy and chemotherapy and is now in remission. Then, in July, she won pounds 50,000 on the pools. The family lives on the Yew Tree council estate in Sandwell, Walsall
Her sons thought they would be going on a shopping spree. Instead, Mrs Evans invested three parts of the windfall in savings bonds and put the rest in the bank. She bought a new bike for Steven, seven, on his birthday, and gave pounds l00 each to Richard, 15, and Alan, 16, which they spent on clothes.
She bought a burglar alarm for pounds 700: "There are some rough elements on this estate. The pools win has increased our chances of being burgled." The money, she says, has been invested for her children's future: "I have no idea how long I'm going to be here. I nearly died. It's changed my perspective. I'm not rushing out to spend on some flash holiday."
The pools win has caused conflict both within the family and the local community, she says. Her husband had given up his job as a car sprayer to look after his wife and Steven, who suffers from a heart condition. The family lived on benefits. But when the couple appeared in the local newspaper celebrating their win, someone sent the cutting to the Department of Social Security and their benefits were withdrawn. He has since gone back to work.
The win has also led to fierce rows between her and her two older sons: "They don't understand that they cannot have all the things they want. They want motorbikes and go-karts and God knows what. Kids could get through pounds 50,000 in a matter of weeks, and then what's left? Going back to scrimping again? Anyway, if they had a motorbike around here, it would only get pinched."
Richard, her middle son, comes in for his tea. "When Mum won," he complains, "I thought she'd share the money out more. She only gave us pounds 50 for two weeks running - she wouldn't even give us the pounds 100 in one go in case we wasted it. "I thought we should have got at least pounds 200. You can't buy many of the really fashionable brand-label clothes like Caterpillar for pounds l00.
"Then, when my friends found out we'd won, they thought I'd have lots of cash on me to treat them, but my pocket money is the same, pounds 5 a week. I spend it on equipment for army camp. I'm in the cadets and want to join the army proper when I'm 16.
"Since we won the money, I get more hassle from the gangs on the estate - `the troublemakers' is what we call them, the ones that smoke draw [cannabis] and carry knives and machetes. They keep asking me if I have got any money. So, the money has made a bit of difference, but it won't change nothing - perhaps it's just made my mum a bit happier."
His mother shrugs: "When you come into money, you find out who your friends are. People who wouldn't have given me a cup of sugar suddenly want to borrow money. It's been nice to win - but it's been cruel as well"
It's been calculated that the average family will need to spend pounds 100,513 on nurturing just one child from conception to the age of 21 - and this figure reaches pounds 295,669 among the top 10 per cent of Britain's wealthiest people, partly because of private schooling. Some of this money inevitably goes into the pockets of the children themselves: an adolescent aged 15-16 receives a weekly allowance of about pounds 7.50.
With greater spending power than ever before, children today represent a vast source of income for everyone from promoters of youth culture to drug dealers. They may never have had it so good - nor so bad. Every week some new study is released chronicling despair among the young: evidence of worsening drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety over parental divorce, rising crime, increasing depression, bullying and suicide rates, and ever more cases of anorexia, which can start in girls as young as seven.
On Monday, the latest research, called Young People in 1995, published by the Schools Health Education Unit, will confirm another unpleasant fact, of which the anti-gambling lobby has been warning for more than a year. The research, based on surveys involving 24,000 10-15 year-olds, declares that the national obsession with the Lottery now grips young people. Some 16 per cent of boys and 10 per cent of girls aged 12-13 spend their pocket money on scratch cards and lottery tickets; and among adolescents aged 14-15, this rises to 24 per cent of boys and nearly 16 per cent of girls.
Perhaps even more worrying for parents are the statistics concerning the safety of children. It appears that for children aged between 12 and 15, two-thirds of girls and a third of boys say they fear physical attack, and one-fifth of 15-year-old boys confess that they sometimes carry a knife; girls, though less likely to carry protection, favour a sound alarm or spray.
John Balding, director of the Exeter-based unit, says that the more disposable the child's income, the more likely he or she is to be exposed to risk. "The more money a young person has, the wider their social circle and experience, the more likely they are to know someone who uses drugs or carries a weapon," he says.
He is careful not to seem alarmist: "The confident, competent child encounters these situations and deals with them carefully. Risk-taking is a sign of good health and healthy development."
Nevertheless, the statistics make alarming reading. Between 1989 and 1995, the numbers of young people experimenting with one or more drugs rose five-fold, from eight per cent of boys and six per cent of girls aged 15 to 16 in 1987, to 39 per cent and 36 percent respectively in 1995. Nowadays, 75 per cent of school pupils over the age of 11 say they know a drug user.
Small wonder, then, that when Barnardo's recently questioned more than 1,000 adults on how childhood had changed over the last 20 years, nearly two out of three said they believed the experience was much worse now than in their own day.
The Schools Health Unit says that around a third of teenage girls and a quarter of boys are afraid to go to school because of bullying. They tend in consequence to have poor self-esteem, and often follow solitary pursuits, such as spending time with pets.
Here are some of the Unit's recent findings:
Pocket money. 11-12-year-olds can expect each week between pounds 3.30 for girls and pounds 3.80 for boys.15-16-year-olds get pounds 7.50.
Part-time working. In 1991, nearly 50 per cent of boys aged 14-15 said they had jobs during term-time, compared to 36 per cent in 1995. Girls working for the same years fell from 46 per cent to 36 per cent. The trend tends to emerge for the older age groups, but in the younger groups numbers working remains fairly static. This could reflect either the increased propensity of youngsters to concentrate on their studies in the crucial GSCE years, or perhaps increased competition with adults for the type of jobs older teenagers prefer: shop, hotel, cafe or bar work.
Baby-sitting is still the most popular employment for girls (45 per cent of 14-15-year-olds and 38 per cent of 12-13 -year-olds). Paper or milk rounds are the most regular source of income for boys (47 per cent of 12-13 year-olds and 50 per cent of 14-15 year-olds.)
What they spend it on. More girls than boys spend money on cigarettes, discos, clothes and fares. More boys than girls spend on fast food and arcade games: 12 per cent of 12-13-year-old boys gamble in arcades.
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