Thanks for the memories

We are being told childhood is in crisis. Angela Neustatter blames it on parents' nostalgia for their rosy past
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The Independent Online
It's an image of a happy childhood. A mother and father - happily married, still very much in love - sit down to say grace before eating a roast lunch with the children. Their daughter comes in from the step where she has been playing with her dolls; the boy runs in breathless from the park, where he has been kicking a football for hours. Their parents were not worried - they knew they were safe - and neither child needs a key because the door is always open. It is a snapshot of a perfect childhood, circa, let us say, 1955.

Now move forward to the Nineties. The same girl refuses to leave her room; she fought with her mother earlier after stealing one of her cigarettes. And mother herself, who has coped alone since her husband walked out, is angry: she does not know where her son is. He's been depressed for weeks and only seems happy when glued to his computer screen. She thinks he may be taking drugs. The last occasion on which they ate a meal together was a fortnight before.

These are two powerful images entirely at odds with one another. The first is a deeply embedded memory of a fixed and happy world: shift the date a little and it could be recognised by any number of adults aged 35 upwards. The second, if a recent spate of reports and surveys is to be believed, is an accurate snapshot of a typical Nineties childhood, one that is characterised by dissolution, depression and ill-discipline.

What has become of the childhood we dreamt of giving our children? Where, for today's young, is the luxury of carefree ordinariness - Philip Larkin's "forgotten boredom"?

Hard to find, it seems. The latest evidence came from Barnado's this week in its survey The Facts of Life: the Changing Face of Childhood, which draws a sad picture of today's young. The pressures, pains and conflicts among the young show themselves in crime and violence, but also in what Gerison Lansdown, director of the Children's Rights Unit, describes as "the massive level of mental illness among children and a steadily rising rate of suicide". Nearly 4.5 million children are living in poverty, with all the stresses and struggles that adds to their families' lives.

The Barnardo's report suggests that children worry about everything from not being able to get work when they leave school to violence, Aids, pollution and fear of their parents splitting up - quite realistically as the divorce rate is now six times higher than it was 30 years ago. The report talked of the confidence and optimism of previous generations and of a consensus throughout the country that growing up today is tougher than it was 20 years ago.

But whose perceptions are being tested? Barnardo's survey was of 1,069 adults, not children. Parents, quite understandably, may be prone to two weaknesses: an anxiety that the world in which their children grow up may be deteriorating; and with this, a rosy-hued memory of what their own childhoods were like. Has an age of innocence - if it ever existed - been lost? Or are we simply in the midst of a mini moral panic, of the kind that has resurfaced in different guises ever since the murder of James Bulger?

Earlier this month, the pan-European and American study conducted by Sir Michael Rutter and David Smith pointed to earlier puberty but a far longer dependence on parents as young people stay at home, unable to get work or afford to live elsewhere. Rutter and Smith suggested that increasing levels of family discord and break-up might also be to blame for the state of childhood now: which, they were at pains to explain, included a number of things from pathological eating disorders, compulsion to have the right goods to keep up with peers, depression and suicide, to an exponential rise in young crime. But it was marital breakdown and youth crime which were picked on in newspaper analyses, stirring up, yet again, moral panic - blame the breakdown of family, the single parent, the inadequate Mum and feckless Dad for what has gone wrong

Rutter and Smith recognised that poverty and unemployment may play a part in unsettling children's lives. In the Thirties there was poverty, yet there were not the same fears for children's happiness and safety. Perhaps then people shared the experience. The difference is that today we have the underclass, a sector of society which lives in its decayed and often dangerous estates cheek by jowl with leafy rows of houses constantly being expensively renovated, children in smart clothes going to expensive schools, big cars and all the other material goodies they are constantly told via their television sets are what they need to be happy. Not only has this underclass watched the rest of society doing better, they have had the constant message from above that they are victims of their own inadequacy. Is it any surprise under these circumstances that families break down and children turn to crime?

But it would be a mistake simply to focus on the underclass as the place where children are unhappy. The pressures for children to achieve in middle- class families, where unemployment has also hit, are such that Hugh Jenkins, Director of the Institute for Family Therapy, says: "It is a key cause of suicide. Parents in high pressure careers working ever longer hours may have as little emotional and physical energy as parents in less privileged families to give their children."

Not that he underestimates the problems posed by an underclass: "If we continue to have a disenfranchised class which feels it has no stake in society, today's miserable kids will be the cause of goodness knows what problems tomorrow."

But the point he makes is that, most importantly, we need to stop thinking about who to blame and look at what needs to be done to help families give their children the childhoods they wish they could have. He believes this must come from the top, that we need policies which create family- friendly working hours - at present we work longer hours than in any other European country - so that families have time to give children the love and attention they need to feel secure.

If families are not to be so worn down, so filled with a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness by deprived circumstances, they need support in order to support their children. Other organisations such as the Family Welfare Association, the NSPCC and Exploring Parenthood see the need for training parents in schools and for well funded support networks for parents whose children are distressed or getting into trouble.

It has been a bad week for parental anxieties, but that need not make it bad week for children.

Georgie Laing, aged 11, lives in north London. Her mother is a secretary and father is a pipe fitter and welder. She has one brother.

"I do have a sense of the world being a dangerous and violent place.The other day a child from my school was stabbed out on the street. When my friends and I go out at night we carry alarms.

Aids is one of the things that really concerns me. My best friend's stepbrother recently died of it. But I don't worry about it all the time because I'm not at that stage. I know what to do not to get it, but it makes the idea of sex a bit scary.

"My mum and dad row and I don't like it when they do that because I can see how horrible it is when families break up. My mum and dad do make up though and I would say that my home is a secure and happy one. I think that makes all the difference. I know children who don't feel like that and they seem quite sad.

I think it's hard for children who are poor because they don't have the things that other children have and they get the mickey taken out of them. That must feel horrible. There is a lot of pressure to keep up."

Tirus Henry, aged 12, lives with his father, two brothers and three sisters.

"I live alone with my dad. I am not quite sure when my mum left. I see her in the holidays sometimes but I do miss her. I think my dad tries hard to make things all right so I don't worry about life but I know that we do have to make the money stretch. I sometimes feel I can't have the things that other children have and that can be difficult, but I know that's the way it is and when I ask for more pocket money I am just told it's not possible.

"When I hear about the horrible things that happen in the world it can be very frightening. I do worry that it would be terrible if the kind of things we see on television in other countries happened in England. " Daniel Hubley, aged 13, lives with his mother in south-west London.

"My dad walked out on my mum when she was pregnant. Then when I was five he came back again and came to stay. I got very fond of him. He was around until I was nine. Then he left again. Mum told me it was because he was expected to pay maintenance and he didn't want to.

"When he left mum was like a fireball. It was horrible to see her like that. I can't understand why he did it. He is a diver and he must earn a lot of money.

"In our household it's either feast or famine. Sometimes mum gets a lot of work and is very pressurised and other times I see her struggling. I do my best to try and help her. The other day I lent her pounds 20. I feel responsible for her, and I try to talk to her and support her. I am aware of how difficult it is if you can't get work. I know mum worries even though she tells me everything will be all right, but I am used to taking on adult concerns."