Charlotte Church's pleasing teenage troubles

We project on to her all our hopes and resentments about the idyll of childhood and the path to adulthood
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The Independent Online

It's payback time for Charlotte Church. The child star is a young adult now, and she's having a few avidly publicised problems. She has a boyfriend who seems unsuitable – and who confirmed such fears with his attempts to sell his story to the papers. She's finding it difficult to maintain her relationship with her mother, towards whom she appears to harbour much bitterness. She is clearly under pressure, unhappy and vulnerable.

It's payback time for Charlotte Church. The child star is a young adult now, and she's having a few avidly publicised problems. She has a boyfriend who seems unsuitable – and who confirmed such fears with his attempts to sell his story to the papers. She's finding it difficult to maintain her relationship with her mother, towards whom she appears to harbour much bitterness. She is clearly under pressure, unhappy and vulnerable.

Hanging out with the wrong crowd, busting up with parents and generally rebelling. No mother or father likes to confront such difficulties. But at the same time, this is the trajectory that seems to be wanted, even needed, from people who are very successful very young. The story of the talented child who has to fight in public for a grown-up, independent identity is a familiar one. But it is no less compelling for that.

The hyped-up, hyper-real, rite- of-passage tale is always a cliff-hanger. Will Charlotte fail sadly and grotesquely to make the transition, like Lena Zavaroni, Michael Jackson and so many others? Or will she manage to negotiate a comfortable place for herself in the adult world, like Shirley Temple, Bonnie Langford and many more people who had extraordinary childhoods, then went on the have perfectly satisfactory adulthoods?

It's a cruel sport, child-to-adult watching. But like other cruel sports never far from the public attention, it's a tough one to wean its adherents from. Supporters of fox hunting argue with some force that fox hunting isn't just about hunting foxes, but about staging, and thereby paying homage to, the warp and weft of mans' relationship with the natural world, and the harsh realities of country life.

I think something similar could be said for the popular obsession with speculating on whether children privileged by their talent and fame survive the experience. There is something symbolic going on here too, with a chosen child, seemingly unique, having all of the mixed-up hopes and resentments the culture has about the idyll of childhood and the path to adulthood projected onto her.

How much privilege, how much special treatment, how much attention is good for a child? These are arguments that continue to rage. We're broadly agreed that the neglected child of a crack addict will not thrive with quite the ease of a child of attentive middle-class parents in a household full of books. But on the long continuum between these extremes, there is agreement about very little.

From the moment of birth, the boundaries of what constitutes good parenting are massively controversial. The bleak news yesterday of a baby smothered by her mother as she slept beside her in bed have, in an unseemly and cruelly judgmental fashion, reignited one such hotly debated point.

Some experts say babies should never be allowed to sleep with their parents, and one that soft treatment at this stage will impair the baby's lifetime experience of independence and self-control. Others say that the closeness of sleeping together will nurture secure, well-bonded, and happy children, weaned just as nature intended them to be.

This very basic dichotomy may seem millions of miles away from the experience of Charlotte Church. But in some ways the distance is not so great. Should talented children be kicked out of the family bed, then sent into the market place to earn lots of money and garner huge attention? Or should they remain in the parental embrace, shielded from their own potential and abilities until they're mature enough to make their own decisions?

The same stark and extreme set of choices can be seen informing virtually all debate about the way society should treat children. Should troubled kids be given loving remedial attention, or should they be sent to boot camps? Should fussy eaters be given whatever they'll eat that's good for them, or should they be told to take what's put in front of them or starve?

There are even echoes of these strongly held and contradictory attitudes in the current debate about top-up loans for higher education. For amid all the politics, and all the head-scratching over ways of funding public services without raising taxes, there are glimmers of the workings of a more basic attitude about financially and generally therefore educationally privileged children, what they need or deserve, and what they owe.

Just as people seem to find a grim, I-told-you-so satisfaction in the fall from grace of Ms Church, so this mentality suggests that there should be payback time for children of talent and good fortune less outstanding than hers. These lucky students must pay for their success – even theoretical success in the future. Part of that payment will be in forced dependence on parental goodwill.

Anyway, best to forget about the parents, and concentrate on the children. What right-thinking 18-year-old relishes the prospect of continuing dependence on their parents? The fact is that such pressures will most certainly sway many independently-minded young adults to reject rather than embrace continuing education, especially those aware that top-up fees would burden their parents. So the free-thinking types most likely to use their higher education creatively and usefully would be less, rather than more, likely to find such an option attractive.

The argument that those without a university education have a right to resent their taxes being spent on funding the education of children who'll go on to earn more than they will seems both anti-society and anti-children. Whether one has children or not, the benefits for society of investing in their future knowledge and skill are incalculable.

In fact, this mindset panders to the ideas that got us into this mess in the first place, and has brought us to the parlous state now where the crisis in higher education is horrendous. Higher education is already seen as something that does not merit public money (while at the same time more and more stress is placed on how important it is to have it). The salaries of lecturers, researches, and academics are generally appalling. Tell these dedicated graduates that they got where they are today by exploiting the taxed income of the noble poor, and they'll drown in the bitter paradox of it all.

The factor that the struggles of Charlotte Church, the argument for top-up loans and the search for a simple one-size-fits-all child-rearing blueprint have in common is a running theme of fear of the kind of adults children might become. And making such a fuss about the financial potential of a good education simply adds to the barren idea running right through the education system that it's all about money and salaries, and the sort of lifestyle one might attain in the future.

On the contrary, children, even the children of the wealthy, should be encouraged to discover the truth, which is that education and learning is a joy and a pleasure in itself, rather than a mechanism whereby you join the workforce at a more exalted, and more highly remunerated, level.

It's a sorry society that believes that children should be made to pay for their gifts, talents and privileges, just as it's a sorry lot who take such vicarious pleasure in Ms Church's current difficulties. It's a sorry society, too, that resents the fairly modest tax burden it bears for what is clearly a complex and necessary infrastructure all around us, and cannot bear the thought of an increase. Maybe these two things are connected.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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