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

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'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

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