Amy Jenkins: Our unrealistic view of childhood can harm, rather than protect

Click to follow
The Independent Online

David Cameron was seen again this week on the GMTV sofa doing his genial, sensible, reasonable thing – doing that mister nice guy thing he does so well and hoping to mop up some of those all-important female votes.

He's announced that a future Conservative government will take steps to protect children from inappropriate commercialisation and sexualisation. He wants to "make sure that our children get a childhood". He announced that a Tory administration would withdraw government advertising from agencies found guilty of inappropriate marketing to children. They would provide a website specifically designed for parents to come together and complain about adverts they felt were inappropriate. They would also ban peer-to-peer marketing for children.

In terms of the commercialisation aspect, this is nudging the stable door long after the horse has not only bolted but gleefully kicked its heels in every corner of the planet. In terms of the sexualisation aspect, it's pretty clear that he's not going to shut down Disney and Barbie and the like, so what he's really doing is throwing a sop to the prudish. This idea that if children don't know about sex they "have a childhood" has been around for ages. But it's a romantic and unrealistic view of what children are really like. Children soak up information like sponges. They want to know the reality of the world and to deal with it. They don't have our judgements about sex.

Children have their own burgeoning sexuality and they naturally understand about sex – even if they haven't a clue about the mechanics. Children know how to flirt and be sensual and enjoy their bodies. Children are scared of sex only if we teach them to be.

When I was eight, I found my parents' old Hair: the Musical album and I used to listen to it over and over again on the headphones. One of my favourite tracks was "Sodomy" containing the classic lyric "masturbation can be fun". I didn't actually know what masturbation was at the time, but I used to sing along. I don't think it did me any harm.

The earlier you tell children about sex, the easier they'll find it to assimilate. I'm willing to bet you found out all about guns before you realised they actually hurt people. I used to play with cap guns shooting my best friend and I never connected the game with grief or pain. So then, later, when it slowly dawned that guns were the instruments of unthinkable violence, I hardly even noticed. I thought the whole thing was as natural as the birds and the bees. Not so, of course. But the example illustrates how children can be inducted gently into the crazy norms of society.

In a more positive way, the same is true of sex. If a child finds out gently and early about the mechanics and realities of sex, it will simply become part of the landscape – and then there's no terrible shock in store.

David Cameron also said that his six-year-old daughter is "obsessed" with listening to Lily Allen on her iPod. He objects, though, and thinks it's inappropriate. But I can think of far, far worse things for a six-year-old to be obsessed with. A Bratz vanity case, for instance – Bratz being Barbie's brashly sexed-up competitor.

At least with Lily Allen, Cameron's daughter may come away with an ear for a great rhyme. She's an original, creative, thoughtful young woman and not a bad role model either. It's true, her lyrics are explicit. She tells it how it is in her song "Not Fair" – the wet patch on the bed and feeling resentful if she's given too much head.

But what's really worrying is not the idea of children being introduced to sexuality too young, but the aggressive genderisation of children at a young age – at any age. That's the real problem and it's not going to be solved by banning the occasional outrageous toy like the infamous Lolita Bed.

The overwhelming majority of bestselling toys are heavily genderised. For my three-year-old boy it's nothing but trains and pirates and castles and his current obsession, Fireman Sam. He wants nothing more than to be a fireman. But that isn't so terrible. Firemen get out there and do good in the world. They are active, effective and useful.

But what if I had a girl and she was pestering me for a Disney Princess make-up kit? What would that mean she wanted to be? Being a primped-up princess isn't a job! It doesn't contribute one thing to society. Princesses aren't cool and calm. They're silly and pink and scared of mice. Being a princess is an empty nonsense of a dream.

'Tis the season for serious back-slapping

Spring is on the way and we're in the thick of awards season in the entertainment industry. We've had the Golden Globes and the Brits; the Baftas are tomorrow and the Oscars are on 7 March. I have mixed feelings.

I like the fact that in the build-up to Oscar night there are suddenly all these films coming out that a thinking person might actually want to see. And what a great time of year to retreat from the cold into the warm, dark womb of cinema.

But then I don't like the fact that the entertainment industry thinks it's so special and different. Why should we care about so many rich and successful people indulging in such a large amount of self-congratulatory back-slapping? Aren't their lives fun enough as it is?

An awards ceremony for innovative, hard-working, highly successful NHS surgeons would much more obviously deserve a place on prime-time TV. Of course they don't get it because we haven't heard of them or their work; they don't have hectic and very public love lives, and they don't dress in Versace. You might think that's facetious, but those are, in fact, the reasons why this particular set of industry awards appear on our screens.

But then I sit down to watch and – damn it – I end up enjoying my evening. I think it's because there's just so much good feeling. For once we're seeing people appreciating each other, being nice to each other and saying lots of kind things.

Sign here, Mr Bond

Isn't it a little churlish for this Government to stand on ceremony about the use of fake British passports? The Israeli secret service, Mossad, allegedly used them in its operation to murder a Hamas commander in Dubai this week. Surely this is jobsworth-ness gone global. I mean, where's our James Bond spirit? It's not that I approve of what Mossad did – but Mossad is Mossad and Britain is the home of the most famous spy on the planet.

Are we saying that our special agents go round filling out forms and applying for visas? Or are we really saying that we're a bit jealous? Mossad seems pretty effective. This is the Government that took us into Iraq. Don't tell me it isn't exhilarated at the thought of taking the law into its own hands and getting away with it.

Imagine an X Factory of little Cowells running around

Is it just me or is the thought of Simon Cowell having children slightly scary? Will they grow up to make the planet into one huge X Factory? Or will they be so scalded by their father's infamous put-downs that they won't dare emerge from his £14m LA mansion?

Cowell has allegedly proposed to his new girlfriend, the make-up artist Mezhgan Hussainy, 36, and has given her a front-door key. His mother is delighted. She feared her son would end up as one of life's eternal bachelors and never get married. She thinks turning 50 made him realise it was time to settle down and start a family.

But when I mentioned this to a friend, she said: "That doesn't count. Simon Cowell isn't a real person." And somehow I know what she means. She means there's no conclusions to be drawn from this development. It doesn't tell us anything about Cowell because the man is almost completely mediated.