Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

It's no wonder children are troubled if adults won't grow up

I think it's all James Dean's fault. Or maybe Bill Haley's. When a distinct youth culture emerged in the middle of the last century, it was envisaged that street fashion, pop and targeted teenage flotsam more generally would form part of a lifetime's rite of passage, a thrilling stopping-off point on the tortuous path between childhood and adulthood. But it hasn't worked out that way.

Several generations now, having tasted the joys of carefree young adulthood, have decided it's too much fun to give up. Reports such as this week's investigation into the condition of our primary school children express worries that children are growing up too quickly. Actually, that's in many ways just a cop-out, an illustration of how the problem is mostly that adults are reluctant to grow up themselves, preferring subtly to lay the blame at the door of children when the adult world impacts negatively on them. Children grow up too quickly. Bad children.

There just aren't the same boundaries between what is for children and what is for adults any longer. Little children enjoy the same music as their grandparents and watch the same television as their parents. Children's novels are published in special editions for adults, and evening screenings of children's movies are packed with unrepentant grown-ups who presumably don't even know a child who might like to be taken along with them to see the film.

A lot of this is fun. Despite the poor press they get, many teenagers today are notably poised and accomplished. For every grunting child who can't eat with a knife and fork at 14, there is a highly sophisticated one who is engaging company, and at ease in all sorts of social situations with all sorts of people. In some ways it's a pleasure, the manner in which various generations can share their enthusiasms. But in others it's not so healthy.

The fear we have developed of letting our young children 'play out', for example, tends to dictate that they are included in the entertainments of older members of the household early on, and privy to conversations that are not always particularly appropriate. Plenty of parents do make the effort to get out with their children, take them to the park or to the countryside, go cycling, or kick a ball about. Some parents, indeed, book their children into organised improving activities so that they can have an independent life outside home and school. They, for their pains, are labelled pushy. Pushy, much as one likes to sneer, is a lot better than indifferent.

Walking the other week, on a gloriously sunny autumn Sunday in the woods and parks where I used to play as a child, I couldn't help noticing that while 30 years ago there would have been a lot of unaccompanied children out playing on such a day, these lovely green expanses had become deserted. Despite the fact that they exist on the edge of a town stuffed with families, I saw only one stalwart set of parents out with their offspring. Free family entertainment, rejected in favour of heaven knows what, on a heavenly afternoon. It's not just teenagers who prefer to stay in their rooms these days.

Yet a glance at any of the popular television programmes about dealing with rambunctious children portrays kids wistfully wishing that once the cameras had gone, their parents would carry on with 'activities'. The most frightening expression of adult reluctance to put their children first involves the large number of parents who can't even see their way to living with them at all. Again, much of this can be put down to adult reluctance to leave the pleasures of youthful singledom behind. Sexual freedom, love and romance are no longer the preserve of the young and not yet paired off. Unwillingness to accept that all that stuff is pretty much over when children come along, and a worthwhile trade to make, is endemic.

Much, finally, continues to be made of the idea that this is the fault of working women, who put their careers before their families in a fashion that was once considered to be mainly the preserve of men. Again, this is just buck-passing, the typical whine of an adolescent culture that finds it easier always to find someone else to blame.

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