Deborah Ross: It's no wonder children are troubled if adults are not prepared to grow up

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The Independent Online

I think it's all James Dean's fault. Or maybe Bill Haley's. When a distinct youth culture emerged in the middle of the last century, it was envisaged that street fashion, pop and targeted teenage flotsam more generally would form part of a lifetime's rite of passage, a thrilling stopping-off point on the tortuous path between childhood and adulthood. But it hasn't worked out that way.

Several generations now, having tasted the joys of carefree young adulthood, have decided it's too much fun to give up. Reports such as this week's investigation into the condition of Britain's primary school children express worries that children are growing up too quickly. Actually, that's in many ways just a cop-out, an illustration of how the problem is mostly that adults are reluctant to grow up themselves, preferring subtly to lay the blame at the door of children when the adult world impacts negatively on them. Children grow up too quickly. Bad children.

There just aren't the same boundaries between what is for children and what is for adults any longer. Little children enjoy the same music as their grandparents and watch the same television as their parents. Children's novels are published in special editions for adults, and evening screenings of children's movies are packed with unrepentant grown-ups who presumably don't even know a child who might like to be taken along with them to see the film.

A lot of this is fun. Despite the poor press they get, many teenagers today are notably poised and accomplished. For every grunting child who can't eat with a knife and fork at 14, there is a highly sophisticated one who is engaging company, and at ease in all sorts of social situations with all sorts of people. In some ways it's a pleasure, the manner in which various generations can share their enthusiasms. But in others it's not so healthy.

The fear we have developed of letting our young children "play out", for example, tends to dictate that they are included in the entertainments of older members of the household early on, and privy to conversations that are not always particularly appropriate. Plenty of parents do make the effort to get out with their children, take them to the park or to the countryside, go cycling, or kick a ball about. Some parents, indeed, book their children into organised improving activities so that they can have an independent life outside home and school. They, for their pains, are labelled pushy. Pushy, much as one likes to sneer, is a lot better than indifferent.

Walking the other week, on a gloriously sunny autumn Sunday in the woods and parks where I used to play as a child, I couldn't help noticing that while 30 years ago there would have been a lot of unaccompanied children out playing on such a day, these lovely green expanses had become deserted. Despite the fact that they exist on the edge of a town stuffed with families, I saw only one stalwart set of parents out with their offspring. Free family entertainment, rejected in favour of heaven knows what, on a heavenly afternoon. It's not just teenagers who prefer to stay in their rooms these days.

Yet a glance at any of the popular television programmes about dealing with rambunctious children portrays kids wistfully wishing that once the cameras had gone, their parents would carry on with "activities". The most frightening expression of adult reluctance to put their children first involves the large number of parents who can't even see their way to living with them at all. Again, much of this can be put down to adult reluctance to leave the pleasures of youthful singledom behind. Sexual freedom, love and romance are no longer the preserve of the young and not yet paired off. Unwillingness to accept that all that stuff is pretty much over when children come along, and a worthwhile trade to make, is endemic.

Much, finally, continues to be made of the idea that this is the fault of working women, who put their careers before their families in a fashion that was once considered to be mainly the preserve of men. Again, this is just buck-passing, the typical whine of an adolescent culture that finds it easier always to find someone else to blame.

We all know you're gorgeous, Nigella. So forget the suspenders

I'm a little bit worried about Nigella Lawson. In an interview with Esquire she has proclaimed herself as fond of wearing over-the-knee socks like a "French schoolgirl", and further vouchsafed that she knows men like "the whole strappy thing of suspenders, so I'll wear them".

What is going on with her? I understand that middle-aged women dread invisibility, and I also understand there's an element of self-parody in her public image. But even so, the entire Western world agrees that Lawson, at 47, is very attractive and very visible, so touting a well-worn masturbatory fantasy in order to flog a few recipes seems pathetic.

An intelligent woman like Lawson, one feels, ought to be troubled by the enthusiasm with which many women collude in an oversexualised culture that delights in objectifying them. Instead, she appears to consider it some sort of fabulously witty personal triumph that journalists are interested in printing clichéd accounts of her sex life.

Anyway, suspenders are ridiculous and otiose items that make you feel like your legs are strung on in the manner of a marionette. If I felt it necessary to truss myself up in them just to get a bit of attention from some old geezer, I'd keep very quiet about the matter.

* It has been pointed out that Billie Piper, in portraying a healthy and happy post-feminist call girl, has contributed to the perpetuation of a damaging myth about prostitution that is far from the miserable truth about the sex industry.

But there's a more basic irresponsibility that is worth thinking about as well. Do children familiar with Piper from her recent stint as Doctor Who's lovely assistant really benefit so very much from meeting her again so soon, in provocative scanties on 40ft billboards?

What, really, is the point in getting all steamed up about sexualised children when it's deemed OK to have that delicious irony rubbed in their faces? I'm not saying that actors who have appeared in programmes for children shouldn't take adult roles – just that if we really do have to have great big pictures of women dressed as call girls all over the place (and I rather think we don't), then perhaps they shouldn't be people quite so heavily demarcated as Of Interest to Under-16s.

Wouldn't it be wise to be more circumspect about the sort of images that should be placed in a multi-generational public domain? Or shall we just carry on shaking our heads about how "children grow up too quickly" and puzzle over why that might be?

* Everyone is lining up to have a knock at Gordon Brown now. But it has to be noted that he has achieved one of his Great Ambitions in wonderfully short order. Brown always said that he wanted consensus, and he's got it. The consensus is that he's busied himself for the past 10 years with chucking away all our money on overly centralised bureaucracies cluttered with strange mechanisms for creating odd hybrids of public and private provision that don't ever work, and has absolutely no new ideas about how to start spending any further funds that he can scrape together more wisely. It's a big tent, we're all in it, and the nation is united. Credit where credit's due, eh?

More oddly, or so it would seem when inheritance tax is being discussed, there appears to be broad consensus that people shouldn't have to pay tax when they part with money that they have already paid tax on. Hmmm.

That's going to make quite a big hole in the public finances isn't it, since in general one pays tax again on more or less every single thing one buys? Is the a single politician in the country who really will go out to bat on this one? And is that politician George Osborne? I think not.

As a confused observer on the fringes of Facebook, I note that some of my "friends" seem able to find hours on end to dedicate to the site's limited pleasures. I'm above all that and instead am dedicating all my spare time to planning my own attempt at cyber-entrepreneurial success. It's an antisocial networking site that will be called Arsebook, and I'm certain it will be very big. Which I think just shows that I'm a lot more mature than all those other parents who I feel so comfortable about criticising.

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