The joys of a 21st-century childhood

The nation's children are depressed, victims of an excess of 'junk culture' that is poisoning their upbringing. So say 110 'experts' in the field. But don't today's youngsters enjoy a range of opportunities and advantages that would have been the envy of earlier generations? Joanna Moorhead says the kids are all right, while, we take a glimpse into their lives
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The Independent Online

The funny thing about childhood is that, while grown-ups go all dewy-eyed and dreamy about it, kids themselves can take it or leave it. And mostly, they'd like to leave it. Take Rosie, my 14-year-old, who right now is sitting downstairs on the sofa telling anyone who'll listen how she feels her life is so, like, limited. "It's different for you grown-ups," she sighs. "You've got choices and places to go and people to see... your life is busy and you're doing what you want to do. We're all stuck in school all day, and we can't get out to see our friends just when we want. It's tough."

Well, that's Rosie's story. But my story, as Rosie's mum and the mother of three more daughters, is that girls like mine have never had it so good. Rosie is right in one sense: childhood is never that fabulous when you're in it.

Life is all about choice and making plans and doing what we want with our time, and kids' lives have always been limited by adults making a lot of decisions for them. Anyone who really believes in some kind of perfect Enid Blyton childhood where kids ran round on their own all day and had an amazing time making dens and mud-pies is living in a sentimental past that, thank goodness, never really existed: I am honestly shocked when I read my eight-year-old her favourite Famous Five books each evening. What was George's mother thinking of, letting four kids and a dog go off camping on their own in some field miles from home? What possessed her to say it was all right for them to take themselves off to Kirrin Island on a boat all alone? OK, so it was the 1940s: but I don't believe my grandparents' generation, war-scarred though they were, had quite lost all sense of responsibility.

Spool forward a generation, and the myths - and the reality - continue. As a child I didn't watch a lot of TV, and I spent a lot of time playing with the other kids out on my street. But, hey-ho, I don't have a lot of happy memories, actually: my four-year-old sister ended up being killed by a car outside our house, and - a far less traumatic event, but significant all the same - I was propositioned by the neighbourhood granddad paedophile, who invited me into his sitting room for some sweets while his wife was out shopping. Yes, the sun shone and we had our freedom: but it came at a price, sometimes a terrible one, and no one should ever think otherwise.

So my kids don't play out on their own: I know where they are, who they're with and how they're getting home. They do watch a lot of telly. They spend a fair dollop of time on the computer: sometimes they're genuinely doing their homework, but I know a lot of time is being frittered away on MSN or browsing websites (not too unsuitable, I hope, as we do have Net Nanny). They eat chips. They like chicken nuggets, and burgers. They eat sweets - especially the bright-green chewy kind that every parent knows is a guarantee of fillings at the next dental appointment.

And what's more, in yet another example of the so-called poison culture in which experts tell us our kids are now being raised, my husband and I spend a fair bit of time actually hoping they'll do well. When they do a test or an exam, we like them to pass it. If they don't come up to scratch we make sure we tell them that they're not doing well enough: you can do better, so do better!

So, presumably, we are nightmare parents, raising a nightmare generation. That's if you believe what you read in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, where a group of 100 academics and experts warned that a "sinister cocktail" of junk food, marketing, over-competitive schooling and electronic entertainment is destroying childhood. Childhood, they say, is being impoverished by virtual play and hothousing and kids who don't spend enough time just hanging out with their friends the way I did (dangerously) when I was a youngster.

I can see where Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo and Penelope Leach are coming from - although, tellingly, they're more grandparent-generation than parent-generation like me. From where I stand, with four kids aged between four and 14, the view ain't that bad. My children are (reasonably) happy and (robustly) healthy. They're articulate, despite all that time staring at small screens; they're sceptical when it counts ("of course the adverts want you to be stick-thin and buy new clothes all the time, but that's because they're selling stuff, aren't they?"). And most importantly, they care about one another.

For Rosie and her pals, friendship is hugely important: she and her little gang meet every week or so at someone's house for a pizza and a video (another encounter with the small screen) but, hey, they love it. They chat. They giggle. They enjoy one another's company. They can communicate, and communicate well. They make allowances for one another. They share a joke.

In fact, what I feel most often when I'm with them is hugely impressed by how (to use that horrible emotional jargon of the moment) emotionally intelligent they are. Certainly more than I was, when I was a teenager living my idyllic childhood in a boarding school in the middle of the countryside. We had no telly, we had long country walks, we had hours and hours of time in which to amuse ourselves, but at nearly 15 I was nothing like as empathetic or as insightful as my daughter is to other people and their lives around me.

The problem, it seems to me, is that what Pullman, Wilson et al are condemning is a world that's just as it's always been: a world in which childhood has its dangers, and in which children can flounder unless the adults closest to them take a close watching brief on how it's all going. The pitfalls are different now: they seem scary, especially to the 50-plus generation, because at their heart is a system of communication that most older people don't fully grasp and never will grasp. But fundamentally things are as they have always been: all things, but in moderation.

So, of course, kids who gorge themselves on McDonald's, or watch telly from 4pm to 11pm five days a week, or read Bliss and CosmoGirl! and think every word within its covers is true will be hugely disadvantaged. But that's not how it is for my kids, and it's not how it is for most kids these days, either: because most of us parents are still largely in control, still mostly rowing our boats, still on the whole steering our children through life's waters and making sure they know what matters in life.

The children Pullman and co are really worried about, I think, are the children who are at the bottom of the pile in every generation: those who are not properly parented, who don't have adults around to care for them and to reassure and to support: the children who don't have adults to guard them against the dangers that always exist in childhood, wherever and whoever and whenever you look in the whole of human history.

My "idyllic" childhood, apart from being blighted by the loss of my sister, was mostly happy enough: but, given that I was locked away in a Mallory Towers-style boarding school, it was devoid of any contact with teen culture, as much as there was teen culture in the 1970s. When I went to university (aged just 17! - a victim of hot-housing in a previous generation), what I most wished was that I felt part of the culture I now found around me, and which I'd missed out on during the previous eight years.

Fitting in culturally matters to teenagers: it mattered to me, it matters to my daughters, and I'm glad it does. I'm thrilled for them that they know what's cool, that they enjoy chatting to their mates on MSN (not too much but, hey, it's addictive! They taught me how to do it, too); that they enjoy a bit of shopping and that they care about their friends, about their appearance and about doing well.

Being a kid has never been so good; I feel excited with my children, and for my children, that they're growing up where they are, and when they are: and I believe in them, and in their generation.

As far as I can see, there's a lot more honey than poison in the cocktail that is childhood in 2006: and my kids, and all the other kids I know, are the sweeter and more promising for it.

ELINOR SMITH, 12

London

Junk food, marketing, electronic entertainment... that's the good stuff in life, not the bad! The only bad thing on the list as far as I can see is over-competitive education. It's true that we have too many exams and tests, but isn't that what kids would always have said? It's certainly not something that's restricted to today.

I think adults are scared of the world we're growing up in, because they haven't quite got a handle on it and we have. IT is our tool: we understand it, and it's going to be fundamental to our lives. Our parents will never quite master it, and they're a bit afraid of it as a result. Many of them aren't even brave enough to try: they like the world as it is, they're old-fashioned, they don't want to risk finding it tough to learn how to use this stuff. But being on MSN is a good way to communicate: if you're moving to a new school or keeping in touch with someone you met on holiday it's an easy and effective way to do it, a lot easier than a phone call. I think concentration is over-valued by the older generation: the future is about multi-tasking, and can we multi-task!

As far as junk food goes, yes, I sometimes buy sweets with my dinner money on the way to school. But there are other days when my friend and I say, actually, we've had too many sweets this week. So we don't bother. You've got to trust us, oldies - we really do know when to say no!

SABOOR QURASHI, 13

Ilford, Essex

It was different being a kid for my parents because they didn't have all the technology we had. They played outside more, but now everyone is cooped up inside playing on the computer. I think computer games are a good thing, but they are played in excess. I don't think I play games too much, but my dad says I do!

I like playing video games for an hour or so every day, and I save up my pocket money to buy them. Mainly I save up to buy books, sweets and games. I read loads, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are my favourites and I have read them more than once. I read before I go to bed, and if I finish a book I have to get a new one.

I like cycling and swimming, but not really team sports. I am nagging my parents to join a swimming club. I also want to take up rock climbing. I went rock climbing with my uncle and liked it. I have been on the internet finding climbing centres near my house and I have found one just a few minutes away. I don't watch as much TV as I used to because my brother and sister are always watching it! I watch Lost on a Tuesday, and some random cartoons.

I don't really like eating healthily - I like pasta and pizza. I used to eat a lot of junk food but I have cut down, because I want to save money and because I don't feel like eating it any more. I like eating fresh fruit. I eat four or five pieces a day. I think I have a pretty healthy lifestyle. I see my friends two or three times a week. Since going to high school I have learnt a lot more about myself. I still play with Lego, because I like making things, but I don't get that into fads - like collecting cards - any more.

THEO ROLLASON, 8

London

Out of all the things I get to do after school, I enjoy them all as much as each other. Every couple of days I'm allowed to go on the internet, and I like to look up things that I didn't get time to do in school. Recently I was looking up a Greek website as I'm learning about Ancient Greece. We don't really have any computer games at home so I like to play board games, make Lego or do drawings and make stories to go alongside the pictures.

Once a week I have some classmates round, we all live quite near to each other. My little brother, who's six, sometimes has his friends round, so I'll play with them too. I also really like playing football and just running about at the local park.

At the moment my mum is giving me packed lunches because the school dinners I was getting weren't great, the food was just microwaved and not freshly cooked. I'll normally have a sandwich, yoghurt and some fruit and sometimes chocolate, but sweets aren't really allowed in school.

I do get a bit of homework, a sheet or two with all the subjects on it, but I wouldn't say it was too much. I quite enjoy doing it, everyone does. Sometimes I'll ask for help from my parents, but often I'll do it on my own.

CHARLIE D'AURIA, 16

London

I do know people I think are pushed too much: they get stressed a lot and they always think they should be doing better. It can't be good. They feel they're letting someone down unless they're the absolute best, and it's a big strain. As far as the rest of it goes, I never eat fast food - well, I eat sweets, but not that many. And anyway, I'm not that convinced that eating fast food has been proven to have bad effects on children - it's all a question of how much they eat, and I don't think all or even most of them have too much.

The most worrying thing in my view is the electronic stuff. When parents were young there wasn't much to distract you from your homework - maybe just one programme on the telly. Now there's just so much out there, from MSN to the internet to everything else you can do on a computer. It's really hard to settle down to just one thing, and that is different from the way it was in the past. But as far as imagination goes, kids still want to use it: it's a question of adults being lazy and letting them have the TV on too much. The other day I told my little brother, Rowan, who's seven, that he had watched too much telly and he turned it off and did some lovely drawings. He didn't mind, he just needed a big person to suggest it.

A lot of adults don't bother suggesting it, because it's the easy option to have your kids quiet in front of a screen, so they don't take the initiative that many kids would welcome.

LOUIE BANKS, 15

Brighton

Out of school I like to spend time hanging out with my friends. I'll invite them over or go round to someone's house and be home in time for tea. At the weekend I'll stay out until much later. We usually watch a film or listen to music, and on a Friday we like to have a drink of wine or beer. A friend who looks older normally buys it, or if he's not around we'll ask a passer-by, but I hate asking people to do it for us. I look quite young for my age so I wouldn't offer to get it. I enjoy having a drink, but I'm not too bothered if we can't get hold of any alcohol. I'm not allowed to go out every evening, though, for which I understand the reasons, but it'd be nice to have the option to. At the moment I'm grounded for swearing at Mum. She doesn't mind me using bad language, but I swore at herso I'm not allowed out for two weeks. I think a week, tops, is a fair enough punishment, not two.

Often if I'm not out with my friends and I'm bored at home, I'll watch TV. I've decided that with my GCSEs coming up it's an important year so I'm going to try a bit harder with homework. I like to think I'm pretty smart, but I'm lazy and sometimes fall asleep in lessons.

I eat well. My mum's really healthy - she grows some of her own vegetables and a lot of the things we eat are organic and tasty. We rarely get takeaways and it's more for convenience that we eat junk food - say, if we are on a long car journey.

I'm not allowed to spend that much time on the computer, which is probably a good thing. Some people I know spend entire evenings on MSN chatting to others, but I'd rather be out actually seeing people. In all, I'm fairly happy. I have enough freedom to do the things I enjoy the most - spending time with my mates.

JINAN YOUNIS, 11

Manchester

Some grown-ups don't understand kids. Children understand each other much better. They know what it's like. It's good being 11. I think I can do a lot more now than my mother could have. My mum didn't stop playing with Barbies until she was 16, but I have given all my toys away. I'm too old to play with dolls, and I don't have the imagination to play with them any more.

I don't watch that much TV because I have started high school and I have loads of homework. I like playing games on the internet, like mini-clip, for an hour every day. I play netball twice a week. I like going on my bike and going to the park. I read a lot, for two hours a day.

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