Not since the Black Death 650 years ago, said a worried demographer on one of those radio programmes about the uncertain future of the human race, has the population of Europe dwindled as dramatically as it is dwindling right now. Italy and Ireland share the lowest birth rate, a direct result I suppose of being late converts to contraception and/or the anti-Catholic backlash. Only one of the six women students with whom I shared digs while we were at Trinity College Dublin had the nous, energy and cash to consider taking the train to Belfast to buy the pill. The rest of us wrestled inexpertly with Dutch caps or kept our fingers crossed. With hindsight, we would have been wiser to keep our legs crossed, but that's another story.
The most obvious consequence of the declining birth rate is the increase of single-child families. To this unnatural and, dare I say, unhealthy situation, add divorce consumerism and peer-group pressure and the result is an awful lot of spoilt brats.
Let me tell you about Josh, who went to the same nursery school as one of my children. His parents split when he was five, weekdays he lived with his mother, weekends he stayed with his father, moving seamlessly between his two homes because he had two of everything. Two PlayStations, two skateboards, two bicycles and at one stage three gerbils; when his dad heard his mum had bought Josh a gerbil for Christmas he retaliated by buying two. For his seventh birthday Josh was given a camcorder which he left on the bus. It didn't matter, he said, because he had another one.
Nowhere is the inverted pyramid of the single child lavished with gifts by parents and grandparents better demonstrated than in China. Birth control there has little to do with personal preference. Since 1979, to have more than one child per family in China is a criminal offence. Siemens have just launched a devastatingly trendy new mobile aimed at dissatisfied youngsters who have everything but want more. To promote it they have opened four designer shops in London, Paris, Hamburg – and Shanghai, where millions of rich Chinese only-children will probably be given half-a-dozen in matching colours this Christmas. I heard a BBC World Service series recently about young Chinese, who have more disposable income than their equivalents worldwide. If you want to sell Ferraris, Lear Jets or any of the latest high-tech gadgetry, this is your market.
You cannot spoil children too soon. A Kensington shop called What Katie Did sells cashmere babygrows for £100 and toddlers' beds in the shape of cars or spaceships for £500 and up. This is the economy end of the market. Junior Living in Fulham offers themed nursery furniture: Mad Hatter bed and matching lopsided cupboards for £900. This is the middle end. The top end, naturally, is Harrods where a Cinderella coach bed retails at £2,500. A double-decker bus bunk-bed, in case Josh's friend wants to sleep over, is available for £3,000, and a hand-painted crib – probably made from crushed storks' legs – goes for just under £5,000.
The Kates Winslet and Moss are carrying their new babies in £300 handmade sheepskin papooses designed by Bill Amberg, but designer labels for kids aren't new. Christian Dior and Dolce & Gabbana have been doing children's clothes for years, Burberry's have just brought out a scent for little girls. The latest indulgence is Andy Warhol for kids. You send off a photograph of your treasure and back comes a Marilyn Monroe-style negative to match her bedroom. At £350, it's a snip.
Enough. Kids don't need stuff, they need siblings and I say this with passion as a mother of six whose youngest, now that his older brother has just started university, is to all intents and purposes an only child. "I don't believe it. Have you really got your own bedroom?" the youngest of his three sisters demanded furiously the other day. "Do you realise that I had to share a bedroom with you and your two snotty brothers until I was 14. It's not fair."
In some ways maybe it isn't. Nor the fact that she wore her older sisters' cast-off clothes, but then her brothers did too, which was worse. I vividly remember the day I went to collect one of my sons from primary school after swimming. "Why are you crying?" I asked. "Because I'm the only boy with a pink vest," he sobbed. Freud will tell you that I ruined his life. "If it's any consolation," I told him, "at least you've got your brothers and sisters to complain to. Think of poor Josh. He's got no one."
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