Thomas Sutcliffe: If kids are depressed, who can blame them?

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The Independent Online

If you wanted a symptom of the mounting hysteria of our attitude to children and childhood then the police investigation into Cherie Blair's slap could hardly be bettered. Attending a school sports event in Glasgow on Sunday, the Prime Minister's wife posed for pictures with a 17-year-old called Miles Gandolfi. He - and let us take our hat off to him for nerve, if not for wit - raised two fingers behind her head to give her "rabbit ears".

Noticing this, Mrs Blair playfully motioned to give him a cuff round the ears, a gesture which led to a complaint to the Child Protection in Sport Unit and the arrival of six police officers to investigate the alleged assault. Never mind that the allegation was patently absurd. Never mind that neither the teenager nor his parents had complained. The machinery of adult anxiety had been triggered and couldn't be interrupted until the cogs had turned full cycle.

The next day the Archbishop of Canterbury added his voice to those concerned about a potential "crisis in childhood", urging us all to contribute ideas to the Children's Society's inquiry into the state of childhood. This apparently has been prompted by anxiety at rising levels of depression and a climate of "fear and confusion" among young people.

It's worth treating this finding with a pinch of salt, incidentally - given the increasing medicalisation of childhood. As Stephen Fry points out tonight in his BBC documentary about manic depression, what was once diagnosed as "bad behaviour" is now likely to get a clinical label instead. Indeed, in the US children as young as five are being diagnosed as "bi-polar", a shift in approach which is bound to lead to a spike in the figures.

But if children really are more depressed, who could blame them? Virtually every element of their lives has now become a sphere of neurotic concern - from what they eat to where they play, from the pressure of schoolwork to the pernicious effects of what they do to relax after. Their lives are micro-managed in ways that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago - when one of the prime tasks of childhood was not to bother the grown-ups.

Now even the blithest child couldn't fail to notice that bothering the grown-ups often appears to be their raison d'être. Instead of being granted temporary exemption from the cares of the adult world, they are treated as being peculiarly vulnerable to them - so much at risk that even their jokey interactions with adults cannot proceed unpoliced.

To argue that we should care less about children is almost unthinkable, running counter to every orthodoxy of increased vigilance and unceasing fret. But I don't think it's impossible that our solicitude for them - guilt-ridden, over-reactive and sometimes downright paranoid - is part of the problem, generating the very stresses it aims to dispel. We repeatedly abdicate one of the hardest parental duties of all, which is to keep our fears to ourselves, so that children don't have to carry the burden of our worries as well as their own, which are quite enough to be going on with.

And in that respect the Child Protection in Sport Unit, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Children's Society - however impeccable their motives and benign their intentions - may only make things worse. "You're doing my head in", children sometimes moan when managed by adults. There are days when it's hard to say they're wrong.

* Two of my household appliances have just succumbed to entropy.

One is a Gaggia coffee maker and the other a Panasonic microwave. Gaggia explicitly encourage long-term use of their products, selling reconditioned machines through their website and making repairs easy and - more crucially - economically sensible. A helpful woman called Dorothy responds to my e-mail as near to instantaneously as makes no difference, arranges for someone to pick the machine up from my house and gives me her extension number so that I can check on the patient's progress.

With the Panasonic, on the other hand, I find that the repair is going to cost only £3 less than a brand new machine, with no guarantee that another component won't blow next week.

I'm now struggling with my ecological conscience (I really should spare the landfill) but whatever I do, I know one thing. Gaggia have a customer for life and Panasonic just lost one.

Warrior too pink for China

I enjoyed the news report about Pablo Wendel, a German art student who togged himself out as a terracotta warrior, left, and passed unnoticed for several minutes alongside his ceramic counterparts at the tomb of Emperor Qinshihuang in Xian.

After playing an impromptu game of "Where's Wally" the security guards finally detected one who was marginally pinker than the rest, at which point he was subject to what the authorities described as "serious criticism", presumably what he was after in the first place. One imagines a Communist equivalent of Newsnight Review, with members ticking Mr Wendel off for failures of technique while others excoriated his work's lack of redeeming social message.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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