Children being robbed of their innocence, says former laureate

Amol Rajan@amolrajan
Monday 03 March 2008 01:00

Jacqueline Wilson's children's books feature five-year-olds being physically abused, 14-year-olds having affairs with their teachers, and mothers leaving their babies in dustbins.

So when the former children's laureate claims our children "act like adults at an alarmingly early age", resurrecting the debate that they are being robbed of their childhoods, she does so with a degree of authority.

"Our society has made a collective decision to stop children from being children", said the best-selling author, 62. "We're expecting them to grow up much too quickly, force-feeding our own materialistic and consumptive culture into their mouths. Much of the innocence of childhood is being robbed from them.

"With television and the internet playing a bigger and bigger role in their lives, children are being introduced to ideas and issues which used to be kept away from them. Rather than having fun for the sake of it, and going out to play, they're receiving the adult world in a largely unfiltered form," she said.

New research by Dame Jacqueline's publisher, Random House, appears to corroborate her views. A survey of more than 1,000 parents, published today, paints a picture of children in modern Britain – a country where teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in western Europe – as more grown-up than ever before.

Seventy-one per cent of parents said they allowed their children to drink alcohol at home and fifty-three per cent admitted they let their children stay out past 11pm. A third of parents allowed pre-teen children to pierce their ears, and 57 per cent allowed them to watch 18-certificate films.

"Today's children are being invited to engage with ideas that they simply don't have the maturity to deal with", said Dame Jacqueline, the most borrowed author from British libraries.

"Years before they've acquired the necessary fund of emotional knowledge, they're exposed to material that previous generations of children would have been protected from."

But might that material include Dame Jacqueline's books? Her acclaimed works offer a vivid and uncompromising insight into the minds of young people, often written in a first-person narrative. In Love Lessons (2005), the 14-year-old narrator kisses her art teacher and fantasises about having an affair with him. In The Illustrated Mum (1999), readers are introduced to a depressed, alcoholic mother who attempts suicide.

Fiercely strict parents, ugly divorces, terminal illness, and various kinds of abuse are all common themes in Dame Jacqueline's work. Given such gritty content, is there not a whiff of hypocrisy about her outrage?

"I wish I could write novels in which children didn't have to confront these issues", said Dame Jacqueline, who has sold more than 25 million copies.

"But my role as a writer is to hold out a metaphorical hand to these children, and to reflect the difficulties they face in an imaginative way. Sometimes it's best to work by implication, and leave out the gory details – I'd hate to think I'd given kids nightmares."

Grown-up plot lines

*The Illustrated Mum (1999)

Dolphin and her sister, Star, have to fend for themselves. Their mother Marigold is an alcoholic depressive who abandons her children. Her frequent suicide attempts and soul-crushing depression form the backdrop to the sisters' brave efforts at survival.

*Dustbin Baby (2001)

April tells the story of her fragmented childhood, having been abandoned at birth in an alleyway dustbin. In various homes, she is exposed to the adultery and suicide of her adoptive parents, and joins a gang involved in robbery and shoplifting. At the end, April meets the pizza boy who first found her in the dustbin.

*The Diamond Girls (2004)

Sue Diamond is a council-housed mother to five daughters, all of whom have different fathers. Her desperation for a boy leads her to lie about the gender of her newborn daughter. Dixie, the second youngest, tries to deal with her mother's delusion while befriending an abused girl.

*Love Lessons (2005)

Prue King has been schooled at home all her life by a ferocious father. When he has a near-fatal heart attack, she must attend school. Prue develops a strong bond with her (married) art teacher. When Prue begins to babysit his two small children, a romantic relationship begins.

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