Why don’t we encourage young people to grow up?

Something in the way children are now brought up and educated seems to stop them from wanting to grow up – or even having the freedom to

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Conservative MP Claire Perry, who has three children, has just annoyed a lot of people by asserting that children are being ‘babied’ by over zealous parents who don’t allow them to grow up independently.

That word ‘babied’ caught by eye because I am constantly struck by the lack of maturity in many of the young people I meet. There seems to be no will to grow up any more. Time was when there were rites of passage – first long trousers, lipstick, job, university etc and everyone desperately wanted to reach them. And for the record, at 24, I had professional training, a job and marriage under my belt, a home of my own and a baby to look after.

First stockings and nail varnish are a thing of the past. Today children usually wear miniature (often sexualised – also part of Claire Perry’s remit) versions of adult clothes just as their forebears did in the eighteenth century – along with make up and all the rest of it from babyhood in many cases.

But at the same time they are paradoxically locked in the hedonism of childhood. Something in the way 21st century children and young people are brought up and educated seems to stop them from wanting – or even having the freedom – to grow up. A sixteen year-old girl I taught in Kent, for example, told me that she had never walked out of her home alone and didn’t want to. She had always been escorted by family or called for by friends. An eighteen year old apprentice at my hairdresser’s told me she had to travel to the next town by train for classes at the FE college and was terrified because she had never travelled alone on a train.

I doubt that these are all that typical – or at least I hope not - but social commentator Frank Furedi, Emeritus Professor at the University of Kent, said last week that universities now often have to ‘act like teachers by helping students along’ because they arrive ‘lacking a sense of maturity.’

Well perhaps the universities might look to the image they present to young people with their prospectuses and websites which glamorise student bars, social life and night life, in some cases, as if that were the main reason for enrolling. Anyone who lives in a university town will tell you that student behaviour, especially when alcohol is involved, is a problem. And one of the bar staff in a Cambridge college told me recently that the more privileged, protected and over parented the background of student the more likely he or she, once off the leash, is to be unable to cope with student life in a mature and sensible way.

It confirms what I hear everywhere I go. I recently interviewed Paul Roseby, artistic director of the wonderful and highly respected National Youth Theatre. He told me that NYT has just extended its age range upwards to 25. ‘Well they stay young for longer these days don’t they?’ he replied when I asked him why and of course he’s right.

Claire Perry’s point was that mothers, especially if they’ve come out of high flying jobs to care for their children, are inclined to micro manage their children like business projects. Instead of allowing them space and time to dream, drift, play and think. Parents often organise every available minute into arranged activity. And that, she says, means that children become over dependent on their parents.

I think the problem goes much further than that. There is something about the whole of present day education – which in many cases now lasts for at least 18 years from age three to 21 – which infantilises children and young people. We lock them into schools (most primary schools are now reminiscent of prisons) for fear of paedophiles – and litigation if anything goes wrong. Parents are under pressure to drive or escort their children to and from school for the same reasons. We then expect them to stay in education for a very long time – largely because it keeps the unemployment figures down – without much sense of where it’s all leading.

The school curriculum – in which everything is painstakingly specified – has a lot to answer for too. Part of growing up is learning to think independently even when your point of view is different from everyone else’s. ‘If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs’ as Kipling put it.’ Fat chance in most lessons these days. An awful lot of teaching is now very formulaic and dominated by aims, objectives, learning outcomes and other bits of jargon which seem to get in the way of developmental learning. Result? Herd mentality.

And they are for the most part a herd of lambs rather than sheep. Ovine Peter Pans.

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