No wonder our children are cracking up

We have to decide whether we want to protect children from the world we have made, or prepare them for it
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The Independent Online

Suicide rates among young people, and especially young men, have been on the rise for many years. Physical self-harm among teenagers has exploded. Psychiatric drugs have been increasingly prescribed to young people. The World Health Organisation has warned that adolescents in the developed world have the fastest growing incidence of mental health problems on the planet.

Suicide rates among young people, and especially young men, have been on the rise for many years. Physical self-harm among teenagers has exploded. Psychiatric drugs have been increasingly prescribed to young people. The World Health Organisation has warned that adolescents in the developed world have the fastest growing incidence of mental health problems on the planet.

Now a time-trend study comparing the experience of 15-year-olds in 1974, 1986 and 1999 confirms the crashingly obvious. Behavioural and emotional problems are rife among teenagers. Our culture is not conducive to a smooth transition from childhood to adulthood. It is harder, psychologically, for our children to grow up now than it has been for any previous generation.

The research does not investigate possible causes of the breakdown in adolescent mental health. But it has already gone some way towards clarifying a debate that is often dictated by prejudices and preconceptions. Above all, it contradicts the widely held belief that difficulties are concentrated among a small but disruptive group of problem children. It finds instead that the malaise is far more widespread. There is a similar increase in difficulties among rich and poor and among white and ethnic minority children. Although there is a higher rate of mental health problems in single-parent families, by all of the other parameters, there were comparable rises across two-parent and single-parent families.

There is no shortage of theories about why our young people should be having such a hard time (even though it'll probably turn out to be organo-phospates, mercury in fish, or night lights). The secondary education system, turning out the most examined children in the world, has long been accused of applying intolerable pressure. The revolution in early-years education, which sees some children under professional care for long periods while their parents work, is also criticised as anti-childhood.

Our mediated, sexualised "kidult" culture is fingered again and again, as are the general attitudes of a me-obsessed older generation that wants to be the friend of its children rather than its guardian. This spills over into another argument, which suggests that the trouble with adolescence nowadays is that it starts too early and ends too late. Paradoxically, as well, our risk-averse, over-protective idealisation of children is suspected by some commentators of being a major culprit. Yet, it is possible that each and every one of these undoubted trends is as much a symptom as it is a cause.

The underlying problem, surely, is that the basic purpose of parenting - and indeed the basic purpose of being an adult - has become somewhat obscured. Among mammals generally, the idea is to prepare your children for independent existence as quickly as possible. Among humans though, the messages to our children are impossibly confused.

Men and women who have a child, then immediately return to economic activity, are admired. Tiny babies are sometimes expected to have a large degree of independence, and spend quite a large chunk of their time away from their parents, at a stunningly early age. Conversely though, the idea that 30-year-olds should be heaving their laundry home to their mothers (if they've managed to leave the nest at all by this point) is looked upon with cock-eyed indulgence instead of nauseous repulsion.

This is not to say that working parents are wrong, or that pampering mums are evil. It is merely an illustration of how contradictory our ideas about parenting have become. With bringing up children, the experts agree, the most important thing of all is consistency. No wonder our kids are cracking up. There is absolutely no consistency left in the messages that our culture sends to them.

A good example is our contradictory attitude to work. Survey after survey indicates that the men and women of Britain are cheesed off with their long hours, and desperate to spend more time at home with their families, if only their families weren't so damned expensive. The message to the children who don't see much of their parents for that reason, is that work is prison and life is serfdom once you've got dependants. Yet what is the child then exhorted (hysterically in many cases) to spend his youth doing? Working hard to pass exams and get a good degree to get a good job doing all the stuff that makes his parents unhappy and absent. Whoopee.

Meanwhile, obsessed with their work and their stress and their bills and their lifestyle, adults increasingly seem to feel that childhood should be some kind of fantasy land, with the little ones untroubled by such liberating notions as Getting Somewhere Without Being Driven In The Family Saloon or Taking My Turn In The Kitchen.

Yes, locking antlers with an adolescent over tidying up their mess, or doing the salad, is boring. Yes, the responsibilities of adulthood may come soon enough. But actually, parents are not being nice to their children when they fail to pass on their own survival skills to them. On the contrary, they are defying the natural order of things. It must be extremely deranging for an adolescent to know that he is expected to turn into an alien creature who can cook, clean, assemble Ikea flat-packs, launder and mend, overnight. And run an awesome career. And have an amazing sex life. And look great. And, of course, have perfect, fantastic, miraculous children who are an absolute credit to him, and all at a time when he's still a child himself.

Or is he? What, actually, is a 15-year-old? Or, for that matter, a 12-year-old or a 10-year-old? Obviously, we see these people as pretty grown-up, don't we? We have a television watershed, after all, beyond which we show adult material. And we have soap operas, whose young stars are grandstanded in the scripts in order to maintain and increase their child audiences.

So what is suitable viewing for children? Incest? Rape? Murder? Paedophilia? All of these. Then we wonder why, as The Sun hysterically reported yesterday: "a quarter of kids aged 13 to 15 have had sex". It is mad. How can parents go bonkers when told that young girls wear lipstick, when we sit down of an evening and watch this sort of thing with them?

The problem may not necessarily be any of these things taken in isolation. The problem is surely the inconsistency of our expectations. Either we have to decide that childhood is a time of innocence, and submit to the mammoth task of patrolling the cultural borders. Or we have to decide that in such a deeply sexualised culture we cannot suddenly express "shock" when it turns out that adolescents are giving it a go.

Is 13 too young to conduct a sexual relationship? I believe, emphatically, that it is. But I also think it is too young to wear a T-shirt saying FCUK. But when a marketing campaign such as that one is considered an asset to a family retailer, then one is swimming against the tide. French Connection is not to blame for the mental disorders of teenagers. Nor are soaps, or working mothers, or exams. Not on their own anyway. But we do have to decide whether we want to protect children from the world we have made, or prepare them for it. The queasy mishmash of idealisation and carelessness to which we presently subject the younger generation is an unhappy misalliance of the two.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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