Tom Sutcliffe: Are children really growing up faster?

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Jacqueline Wilson believes that children are growing up too fast – and they are being force-fed our "material and consumptive culture" – and her anxieties seem to be borne out by a survey conducted by her publisher, which found that over half of parents believe that their children are effectively grown up at the age of 11.

My knee jerked sympathetically on reading the bullet-point account of her remarks – because they seemed to tie in with a personal sense that living with children is getting more complicated with every passing day. But then I looked a little closer at the findings of the report and found myself stumbling over details that contradicted the simple picture of parents as delinquent gatekeepers, disabled by their own liberality.

You can't blame children themselves for being confused sometimes. As my children have hurdled that critical 11-year barrier and started to hack their way through the undergrowth of early adolescence, I'm conscious that my own parental desires about their development are not always entirely coherent. I have made statements which, if judiciously edited down (and purged of exasperation) could be accurately paraphrased as, "It's about time you grew up and realised you're still a child".

In other words we often require of children an adult's understanding that there are reasons why their liberty is constrained. And that raises the possibility that "growing up too soon" is just a euphemism for "not quite as controllable as they used to be". No one wants to live with an uncontrollable child, of course, but if they are to learn how to do it themselves there has to come a point at which you slacken the reins.

I did wonder a little too how widespread the premature aging actually was, and whether it might be just another artefact of teenage grievance. Any parent of children over 11 will probably have made the acquaintance of that troublesome coeval Everybody Else and his unhelpfully feckless parents. Everybody Else, your teenager will complain, is allowed to go to parties without checks on venue and host being conducted first and Everybody Else is allowed to stay up till midnight on a school day. I'm not convinced that Everybody Else actually exists – even if adults also sometimes have grounds for calling him in evidence, to bolster their sense that everything has gone downhill since they were young. While no one would doubt that some children are exposed too early to things they would be better off insulated from (just as they were in 1960, and in 1860 for that matter) it's also possible that childhood is doing better than we imagine.

Take the fact that many of the markers of "adulthood" contained in that survey – staying out late, trying alcohol, the encounter with "grown-up" fictions and culture – were acknowledged as being permitted or introduced by parents. It wasn't that young teenagers never sought out these experiences 30 or 40 years ago, and it certainly wasn't that they never successfully found what they sought. What's new now is that they do it with the assistance and knowledge of their parents.

That can be a problem, but it could also be evidence that a different kind of relationship between parents and children has evolved -- one in which we're better at recognising that "growing up" isn't a swift overnight transition from one state to another but a process taking years – during which the dependent eight-year-old and self-reliant 18-year-old take it in turns to share the same body. Parents who aid and oversee that tricky transition aren't necessarily abdicating their responsibilities. They might be exercising them.

Fantasies we're all prone to

You have to feel some sympathy for Robert Irvine, a British chef who had carved out a career on America's Food Network cable channel with regular references to his royal connections and his knighthood. When checked, these turned out to be so much piped mashed potato, which Irvine explained as the result of "social pressure". I know how he feels. I don't really like to talk about my own breakthrough work on the Higgs-Boson particle or the assistance I've given JK Rowling in plotting the later titles in the Harry Potter series ... but sometimes when I meet impressive new people and there's a lull in the conversation these things just pop out. Blame social pressure, not me.

* Really dedicated political bloggers don't bother with the overt message of the Clinton and Obama campaigns but dive straight into the subliminal sub-text, with often deranged results. Last week there was much debate about Hillary's "who you gonna call" ad, after the revelation that the night-dress of one of the sleeping children just happened to frame the letters NIG. Was this a covert attempt by the Clinton camp to awaken racial anxieties in voters? Now I find that Jack Nicholson's internet promo for Hillary – cutting together scenes from his films – has provoked comment about the mental state of those notionally endorsing Mrs Clinton, who include The Joker, Jack Torrence from The Shining and Colonel Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men. Jessup's vote-winning pitch is a reference to Clinton's potential status as Commander in Chief: "There is nothing on this earth sexier ... than a woman that you have to salute in the morning". That has to be covert sabotage.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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