Alison Shepherd: Our young don't grow up too soon, Dame Jackie, but too late

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The Independent Online

Jacqueline Wilson is a woman whose views on childhood we should listen to attentively. This is an author who has sold millions of books to millions of children for more than three decades, so she must know something about how their minds tick and whirr.

But this time she has got it wrong. Childhood does not die at 11, it marches remorselessly on into the twenties and can still be spotted in some thirty-somethings. It has been stretched so far that some of the things that pre-teens do are identified as "adult" simply because the adults still want to do them. It is not young people's fault that adults refuse to leave the playroom and then lisp "Stop copying me!".

At the heart of Dame Jackie's misrepresentation is the very idea of the ideal childhood. That bastard offspring of the moral panickers and Enid Blyton has never existed. During that golden age, when the sun shone, mud pies glistened and spiders got their legs torn off, parents for the most part had absolutely no idea how their darlings lived their lives. If they were lucky there was a nanny, a nursery and boarding school. The rest relied on that universal playground – the street, and school. So long as you were home for tea and bed, and there weren't too many complaints from the neighbours, whatever went on out there was for children alone, unchaperoned.

We've agreed there were no halcyon days, so this is not a call for their return. But why should our children not be granted that freedom in another form? Some adults, as now, left far too much distance leaving the child to sink or swim. But the best parents prompted, poked and advised but allowed their offspring to make mistakes, develop their social skills and assess their own risks: to take on gradual responsibility for their own well-being. These days, too many youngsters are constantly monitored, every hour timetabled and every dispute ending in adult intervention. So when do they start to slough off their childhood? Certainly not by 11, when most are still being escorted to school by adults terrified the monsters from under the bed now roam the streets.

The reaction to Dame Jackie's Random House survey contained an unhealthy amount of cant. One of the most "shocking" results, we were told, is the 71 per cent of parents who allow their under-18s to drink at home. OMG, as my own teens would say: is that the odd glass of wine or "stubby"? Or do the little ones have to down the whole crate of WKD before they can watch the latest gore/sex fest? Then there's the 45 per cent who let their 16-year-old sleep over at a boy/girlfriend's house. Do the horror-struck really believe the age of consent was not a clarion call to previous generations? And what of the 57 per cent who allow their children to watch 18-certificate films? The parental "crime" is not one of ignorance, but of knowing too much. No self-respecting mid-teen of my generation would have sought permission to watch the horror du jour The Exorcist, but many of us did sneak in, just as a fair few were having sex and drinking. What teenagers do hasn't changed down the years, what has, is what adults chose to know.

In her media round promoting the survey, and coincidentally her new book, Dame Jackie remarked that her fans' clothing saddened her: they would be better off in T-bar sandals and frocks. Yet, according to the latest figures from Mintel, our children are most likely to be dressed by Next and Marks and Spencer – hardly bastions of inappropriate apparel.

Our 11-year-olds may not live the lives of the Famous Five, but it is still their childhood. To claim that it is inferior does them no favours and becomes another stanza in what is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of a doomed generation.

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