Jemima Lewis: It's our fault for robbing children of innocence

My mother would not have dreamt of giggling girlishly with me over boys or makeup

Share

'Tis the season of teachers' conferences - that annual festival of hand-wringing and doomed motions. This year's delegates have been in especially vexed mood, painting a picture of Britain's classrooms to curdle the blood. The Teachers and Lecturers' Association, for instance, revealed that three-quarters of its members had considered leaving the profession because of pupils' bad behaviour. The number of assaults reported to the union had almost tripled in five years, with 99 per cent of teachers having experienced verbal or physical abuse.

Over at the National Association of Schoolmasters/ Union of Women Teachers, there was a similar siege mentality on display. The young had lost their respect for authority, grumbled the president of the union, Brian Garvey. He blamed Margaret Thatcher for encouraging an "I'm all right Jack" mentality which had undermined traditional social structures.

But respect cuts both ways, and it's not just adults who are getting less of it these days. One of the more poignant observations of the week came from Kay Johansson, an art teacher from North Wales. She warned that adults, in various guises, were "robbing youngsters of their childhood". Big business and the media, she said, had conspired to make even tiny tots hanker after adult goods such as handbags and designer trainers.

Instead of protecting them against these marketing ploys, many parents seemed to enjoy dressing their offspring - the daughters, especially - as mini-adults, in sexy underwear and T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Bitch". Instead of enjoying their youth, she said, children seemed increasingly embarrassed by it. When she started teaching 37 years ago, the playground was full of children running about, skipping, playing with unselfconscious energy. "I now see groups of children standing round discussing who has the most expensive trainers or the latest mobile phone. They seem afraid to play. To be a child is so not cool."

It is extraordinary how childhood has been whittled away beneath our noses. Ten years ago, British newspaper readers gaped in horror at pictures of JonBenet Ramsay, the six-year-old American "beauty queen" who was murdered under mysterious circumstances. There must, it was agreed, be something deeply sick about any parent who would dress their daughter up like a cross between a whore and a china doll: all candy-floss hair, wide blue eyes and a mouth slicked with gloss. It was cruel, perverted - asking for trouble.

Yet the children that Mrs Johansson describes - and whom I sometimes see trailing behind their parents at the supermarket, click-clacking in their plastic high-heeled mules, a miniature handbag dangling from the crook of one chubby arm - are only a couple of notches away from JonBenet.

In case you are thinking this is just a chav phenomenon, think again. One of the most loathsome inventions of recent years is the "mother and daughter spa day". Marketed, like all the silliest ideas pertaining to womanhood, as a "treat", this is basically an opportunity for rich mothers to induct their pubescent daughters into the art of sexual preening. Their unformed bodies will be waxed and buffed to a New York shine. They will be taught how to cover their youthful bloom in a mask of make-up - and deeper lessons besides. They will learn that they are not sufficiently beautiful au naturel and that vanity and insecurity are part and parcel of being a woman.

Almost all girls develop these kinds of neuroses eventually; what mystifies me is that any parent should wish to hasten such an unhappy fate. Is it subconscious sabotage: a jealous mother killing off her daughter's youth before she's had time to enjoy it? Or is it pure infantilism: mistaking your child for a toy, and dressing her up like a mini-me? Either way, the result is bound to be confusion and unhappiness.

Children, as everyone professes to know, need boundaries. Yet the most important one - the line between childhood and adulthood - is constantly being crossed by the people who should know better: the grown-ups. It's not just a sartorial problem. I am shocked by the insouciance with which some parents talk to their children about their marital problems or money worries.

My parents, I'm glad to say, never tried to confide in me. Nor would my mother have dreamed of giggling girlishly with me over boys or make-up. Her job, as she saw it, was to make me feel loved and secure. The rest I could do myself. The results, for a long time, were mixed. My teenage style veered wildly from goth to "casual" (as chav style was then known). My attempts to coax my hair into a flick resulted in a swooping fringe, combed over one eye and set with a tin of hairspray that was so rigid it could be raised and lowered like a trapdoor.

Looking back on the photographs is painful, but not as painful as a childhood of enforced precocity. My parents did not want to make me sophisticated before my time; they had respect for childhood.

Jemima_Lewis@dennis.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The power of anonymity lies in the freedom it grants

Boyd Tonkin
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014.  

The Isis threat must be confronted with clarity and determination

Ed Miliband
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone