HAS anyone seen childhood? It was around not long ago, but it seems to have disappeared. I went into a bookshop to look for it the other day, as I was buying a book for a five-year-old. Surely such places would be full of magnificent tomes for keen twinkies?
There were indeed plenty of worthy books for these tiny innocents, but what shocked me was what lay alongside them.
The sheer scale and scope of today's "Get the little buggers by the throat" industry takes your breath away. Volume after volume incites parents to make their child the world's greatest speller at the age of four, murder baseline assessment, crush all opposition in school tests, complete the whole of the national curriculum by the age of six. The message is clear: grow your own adult in less than a year, fertiliser provided.
There is nothing wrong with involving parents in their children's education. Indeed, it would be criminal to exclude them from it, but any Martian landing in a city-centre bookshop today would be struck by the layers of desperation which have been grafted on to learning at home.
Anyone not busting a blood vessel to nurture a junior genius is seen as a feckless, uncaring parent.
New parents must wonder nowadays whether they are raising a family or preparing for the 2012 Olympics. Why all the rush? Childhood is too important to eliminate. No other species would bore its young into insensibility with an adult's version of life.
"Right, pay attention, today we're going to look at how to kill a mouse, so turn to page 5 of your book,The aerodynamics of a cat's claws, and we'll make a start on desirable learning outcomes attainment target 1b of the national cat curriculum. Just do the first 10 questions, Tibbles, and wag your tail when you've finished".
"Do I have to?" "Look, Tibbles, you're taking your kitten baseline assessment next week, and I'm not having it said that Mr and Mrs Felix are stupid."
The trouble with many of the "grow up by tomorrow" books is tha they are so dreary. There are pages of brain-corroding exercises, even worse than the rubbish peddled in the soppier books for young children.
I could never stand the sort of tripe that spent 36 pages describing someone having tea and cakes with his granny. I always wanted him to put some strychnine in gruesome grandma's scones, but it was much less awful than the Gradgrind gymnastics of the hothouse books.
You can only have a proper childhood once. People try to recapture it subsequently if they feel they missed out, but it is never the real thing, and we look comical trying to be childlike in later life.
Nor is childhood too hard to conceive. Young children are born with an onoff switch in their heads. It is better known as curiosity. Turn it off and it is the devil's own business to reverse resistance to learning. Childhood is about parents keeping this delicate trip switch in the "on" position.
Get a shovel and dig up some worms. Roll on the floor. Talk about anything and everything, argue, laugh at yourselves. Throw away all unneeded vitamin supplements. Go for a walk and chase one another, occasionally in the rain. Play picture lotto. Sing, act, read, write, watch television together. Stay curious, discover the world around you.
Collect any junior genius videos or CD-Roms and take them down to the municipal rubbish tip. The only problem with this solution is that they are likely to be recycled. The minute you have gone home, a gang of opportunist primary teachers will be down at the tip like vultures, loading the stuff into a car so that their class can glue Rice Krispies on them, paint them purple, and present them as a technology project.
A suitable, though politically incorrect, solution would be to stack every "grow your own genius" artefact in a pile on waste ground. Maybe some residual anarchic bit of childhood still survives in our hothouse society. If so, a gang of mischievous children will come along one day and widdle on them.