A Nineties childhood: drink, drugs, crime, and now parenthood

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The Independent Online
I Didn't learn about sex at primary school. I didn't learn about it at home either, even though both my parents were doctors. When, round the age of 12, at grammar school, the first dark rumours began to reach me, I formed a club with a couple of fellow non-believers. We were the flat-earthers of human sexuality. We knew something so ugly and ridiculous couldn't possibly be true.

Soon enough, we bowed to the inevitable. There was a growing body of anecdotal evidence, from jokes and books. There were those involuntary nocturnal emissions, then, later, the willed or voluntary ones. By 14, several boys in my class had lost their virginity. Two years before, we hadn't remotely known what was what. Even if we had known, we wouldn't have been able to act on the knowledge.

I can't be the only person who's been ransacking my past since reading last week about Sean Stewart, of Bedfordshire, who at the age of 11 is set to become Britain's youngest father. I remember a boy who left school after O-levels, to marry his pregnant girlfriend. I remember unplanned pregnancies at university. But this isn't much help for thinking about Sean, who, if he goes on to higher education, will be taking Finals round the time his child moves to secondary school. While science has lengthened one end of the age-band for parenting, allowing a woman over 60 to give birth, nature, in the form of Sean, has extended the other. After gymslip mothers, we now have pre-teen fathers.

It's apt that the news should have emerged when it did. The week of GCSE results always brings stories of extraordinary achievements, of children years ahead of their time. Sean's precocity is physical, not intellectual, however, and no one was celebrating it as the equivalent of 11 As. The photos were all of his 15-year-old girlfriend, Emma Webster, tragically hugging her mother after deciding to have the baby. Sean himself was nowhere to be seen, his mother having sensibly taken her family into hiding - not from Emma but from the press.

Summer is the time for fertility myths. In August last year the headlines were dominated by Mandy Allwood, pregnant with octuplets, who courted celebrity as the mother of the world's would-be most multiple birth. The media and medical world were largely disapproving of Ms Allwood, warning her that if she didn't opt for selective termination she would lose all eight babies - just what later happened. There's been dismay at Master Stewart, too, but no one has dared suggest that a termination would be sensible. Whereas Mandy Allwood's condition could be explained by fertility drugs, nothing can account for Sean Stewart's capacity to father a child at 11 - only nature, which in this case seems unnatural.

Almost as unnatural is that Sean should have a girlfriend so much older than he is. At that age, every month seems to count for a year, which makes Emma half a lifetime his superior. He is said to be "mature for his age", and to have deluded her into thinking he was 14 or 15. There is nothing especially depraved about such deception: most adolescent boys lie about their age - to get into films, or pubs, or to impress girls who don't know them. The surprise is that it worked, especially since Emma and Sean were next-door neighbours.

Yet the real interest of the story isn't its Guinness Book of Records quality, but the confused image it offers of today's children. On the face of it, here's another chapter in the great Nineties story of Children Who Grow up Too Quickly. After seven-year-olds stealing and driving away cars, after eight-year-olds burgling shops, after the Bulger case, after the gang-rape by 10-year-olds in a west London school, now comes a child fathering a child. The great fear is that children are truanting from childhood, are skipping essential parts of growing up. Where their predecessors played cowboys and indians, today's kids are depicted as dangerously adult - into drink, drugs, violence and under-age sex.

But Sean Stewart doesn't quite fit the image of heedless youth. He and Emma have said that they were taking precautions and that she became pregnant only because a condom burst. Even if this was a fib told to placate angry parents, the couple must have known enough about birth control to realise it was the right statement to make. For advertising their use of the condom, while also reminding peers that birth control methods aren't foolproof, Sean and Emma have behaved very responsibly. They can't expect badges for this, given that they have also contributed to Britain's teenage pregnancy figures, already the worst in Europe. But they have displayed more maturity than those around them, who should have recognised that, since Sean and Emma are themselves children, the best course would have been to persuade them not to go ahead with the child.

Children, on the whole, do not make good parents. They are too busy living their own childhoods to have time for their offspring's. It will be hard for Sean to play a father's part while living at home with his mother and six siblings. By the time his child goes to primary school, he will be old enough to marry Emma. But it will take something special for the relationship to survive that long. And what it takes may be damaging to both parties - a devotion that sacrifices their youth, arrests their development and fixes what should have been a passing phase of growing up into all they have and are.

"He is only a child, he doesn't really understand what is going on," said Sean's mother, Theresa, last week. The question of how fully children understand when they perform supposedly adult activities - whether it's having sex, or drinking alcohol, or committing crimes - is a difficult one, and any legislation relating to the age of responsibility is bound to be slightly arbitrary. Even where adults are involved in some way, coercively or otherwise, the law may be muddled. There's an interesting documentary coming up on Channel 4 this Thursday about photographers who have run into problems with the police for having used naked images of children. Among those whom the art dealer Nicky Akehurst enlists in her polemical film are children who have posed nude for photographers (sometimes in the company of their parents), and who say this is a "natural", not exploitative, activity. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this (in my view, Akehurst is right about the current hysteria over paedophilia, but wrong if she believes that children "choosing" to be naked subjects do so with a mature understanding of what is involved), the real issue, as always, is that of consent: at what age do we start to act freely and knowingly?

Civilised societies set this age fairly high and thus seek to prolong childhood. They don't compel children to work. They don't enlist boys to fight wars at eight, or allow girls to become brides at 12. They grant children rights but don't burden them with responsibilities. Protecting children like this won't prevent them from trying out for themselves such enticing adult pursuits as smoking cigarettes or taking each other's clothes off. But they're only playing at being grown-up, and when something goes wrong adults shouldn't make them suffer all the consequences.

Impregnation is a grown-up business. But Sean and Emma didn't want to be grown-up in that way. They wanted the buzz and sticky wonder and luscious tactility of sex, but not the baby. It's no use grey-haired columnists telling them they should have known better. They couldn't know better. They were still finding out. That's the nature of youth.

Neal Ascherson is on holiday.