Deborah Orr: British kids have a peculiar aversion to childhood - and it's killing them

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The Independent Online

Bless the innocence of adults. They can sometimes appear so much less wise about the culture they live in than the children they fret about so comprehensively, and so ineffectively. A report from the government funded Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV has discovered that there is a link between teenage sexual activity, the use of alcohol and illegal substances, and shallow celebrity worship. What activities will we discover next to be locked in a symbiotic relationship - sex, drugs and rock'n'roll? Oh, no. That's exactly what we've just found out. It's good to have pinned it all down.

The report has horrible stuff in it, nothing more awful than its statistics on the huge leap in the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases of all kinds. And its conclusions echo those promoted for years by experts - that education is the key to assisting young people in making better and healthier choices. The group calls for clear and compulsory messages to be taught in schools, and for advertisers, manufacturers and broadcasters to work with Government in looking at the way in which they sexualise the young and target alcoholic products at them.

Again, though, this is information that has been in the public domain for a long time, yet remains as controversial as ever. The prescription for honest information to be imparted to children at a young age may - as militant Catholicism ratchets up a gear - prove to be even harder to get across. Advertising condoms before the 9pm watershed? The Pope won't like that much.

The report is right to emphasise the importance of looking at the bigger picture, and not treating specific problems in isolation. Yet by the nature of its remit, this report does the very same thing. There are many more connections to be made. There's no point, after all, in wringing our hands as we observe yet again that British children seem particularly susceptible to risky and damaging behaviour. It has been well known for years that British children binge drink more, take more drugs, younger, and have sex earlier than their peers in other developed countries.

Having managed to work out that these damaging hobbies are not being indulged in by three different groupings, but instead tend to feed into each other, just like in an episode of Skins, let's just note one thing. It is robust and solid childhood that protects children from growing up too quickly and too messily. British children just aren't embedded enough in the business of being little any more. And in another report, published last week by the Children's Society, a large part of this much more fundamental problem was aired.

Can it really be true that 43 per cent of parents believe their children should not be allowed out unsupervised until they are 14? Can't people see that this is way too late for humans to have their first taste of autonomy and freedom? The Children's Society warns that the lack of the means to visit their own friends and go out and about with them damages their ability to form friendships as well.

The irony, of course, is that parents are reluctant to let their children off the lead because they don't want them to experience risk. But as soon as they get the chance, very many children leap at the opportunity to do the riskiest stuff of all, and without that much understanding of how they manage the consequences, or how they protect themselves.

The worst thing of all is that this culture is unhappily self-sustaining. Parents are not likely to start kicking their children out on the street at eight years old, telling them to be back in time for supper, not least because yet another worry is the prevalence of young people out there drinking, taking drugs and having sex. So the only thing to do is offer theoretical explanations of the risks that they are likely to encounter when they finally hit the big wide world. And that narrows the window of childhood even further.

* The new report into sexual health will itself promote parental anxiety, particularly because of the manner in which it is being reported. Much quoted is the passage which says: "In a single act of unprotected sex with an infected partner, adolescent girls have a 1 per cent chance of acquiring HIV, a 30 per cent chance of getting genital herpes and a 50 per cent chance of contracting gonorrhoea." That's just a detailed description of the well-known fact that sexually transmitted diseases are sexually transmitted, not a new and hitherto undreamed of consequence of early sexual activity.

The art of laughing at fear

One small nugget of good news for parents is that Walden Media, the film company that makes movies with an educational and moral content for children, has announced its intention to bring the work of Edward Gorey to the cinema. Gorey died in 2000 at the age of 75, having enjoyed a long career as the darkest and funniest children's illustrator ever to have walked the earth.

My own favourite is the Gashlycrumb Tinies, a ghoulish A to Z of all the ways in which young children can come to harm. "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears," it goes, all the way to poor old Zillah, "who drank too much gin". Just in case one is confused about how far the joke goes, the back cover of the book is illustrated with a little group of headstones. It's a politically incorrect manual of childhood risk like no other, though not for the squeamish.

Walden, in association with 20th Century Fox and Jim Henson, is filming a less controversial tome, Gorey's 1957 book, The Doubtful Guest, about an odd creature who mysteriously invades a family home with an unknown motive. Gorey's work was all about confronting human fears, and laughing them off. It's time for a revival.

A cut and dried argument for going green

The revival of the humble clothes peg, this week's triumphant signal of growing environmental awareness, is indeed significant. But before we congratulate each other too heartily, I think we all know that our washerperson motives are mixed.

I got rid of my tumble dryer and strung up a washing line years ago, for several reasons. Partly it's a global warning dividend, rather than a self-sacrificing confrontation. With plenty of good drying weather these days, only a fool would burn money on making that horrible clunking racket when it's quicker outside.

And more significantly, didn't we all realise that tumble dryers were ruining all our clothes? Even if they didn't shrink them - which they usually did - they came out all stretched, with T-shirts characteristically wider than they were long, and gaping unattractively across one's back.

Then there was the static in the children's mysteriously synthetic school uniforms, which meant mornings were spent either scrupulously avoiding family contact or indulging in what looked to innocent passers-by like St Vitus's Dance. And there was the dreaded bobbling, which occasionally led to the odd and unwelcome domestic activity of garment-shaving.

Anyway, let's face it, we're not so green that we've ripped out our radiators, so even in winter clothes are easy enough to dry, and can help persuade you you're not a Bad Person because you've got them on full blast. It's not all love for the planet. Some of it is straightforward recognition that tumble dryers are rubbish and take up a great big space where the recycling boxes could live.