Has childhood vanished

22nd September 2006 at 01:00
Says Louisa Leaman, who argues that it's our fears for society rather than the fear of a fairytale lost

According to a recent newspaper report, childhood is dying. So those cheeky little scamps I saw challenging each other to throw their school bags on top of a bus-stop must have been a figment of my imagination.

Or perhaps they were making a political stand against the rigidities of the formal curriculum. Who knows? Apparently, a group of adults do. Academics and professionals have put their signatures to a letter, subsequently championed by the Daily Telegraph and the Tory party, articulating the fall of childhood innocence. My heart is with the sentiments of thiscampaign, but I worry that it loses sight of practical wisdom.

There is a sniff of alarmist hysteria about it, not to mention political bat and ball. And how ironic that the mass media - the thing that lures us into the living room with ever-accessible, low-rent entertainment while leading us to believe that the streets are full of paedophiles and terrorists - are now trying to tell us what's wrong with childhood.

It is easy to feel emotional about the issue; it is not so easy to unravel it. The campaign implies that the essence of childhood is being abused, but no one can pinpoint exactly what this means or what is causing it.

Offenders are named - the usual suspects: junk food, advertising, computer technology, test-orientated education - and statistics are waved about: 12 per cent of 13 to 18-year-olds apparently use the internet to search for adult websites. Oh my god! Teenagers are curious about sex!.

My confusion stems from the fact that these themes seem to be representative of modern life in general. They are inescapable. The original letter, backed by authors such as Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson, states that children need "firsthand experience of the world they live in", but then quickly raises concerns about the "fast-moving hyper-competitive culture" which is the world that they live in. It is a contradiction: on the one hand, children need to have real-life experiences (as opposed to screen-generated ones), but on the other, real life is deemed unsuitable for them.

Does this campaign say more about our own fears regarding the state of the world than our fears for our children?

We are in the middle of a huge technological revolution. We get to see, hear and experience things that were unavailable to us some 20, 50 or 100 years ago. This insight is amazing, but it is also scary.

Courtesy of the media, we are continuously reminded of all those real and perceived terrors that are out there - war and global warming, for example.

If we worry about childhood, it is because we are worrying about adulthood.

This is the modern world.

Should we not be encouraging children to prepare for the challenges they will face as adults, rather than protecting them from those challenges? Will a fairytale childhood help them to make the transition into the 21st century?

Evolution tells us that we need to adapt to survive, and although it is impossible to predict exactly where we are going, we should at least be looking forwards rather than backwards.

Progress has its positives: we no longer stuff small children up chimneys or lock up homosexuals, and we no longer use the cane - all of which are far more harmful than the occasional chicken dipper. "Occasional" is perhaps the key here.

I look back on my own childhood and remember how I was encouraged by my Sinclair Spectrum-obsessed father to play "Jet Set Willy" until the small hours. I liked it, but I also liked drawing, and stories, and running around the garden in fancy dress.

Variety makes childhood great, and parents have the power to give their children variety, to create choices and set boundaries. No one is forcing the Western world to turn on the television and watch hours of soap opera.

I have worked with emotionally disturbed young people and have learnt that the biggest threat to childhood is inadequate parenting. Before we start blaming our tools, let us not forget that it is people who make the difference and people we should focus on if we want to create change.

Louisa Leaman is a special needs teacher and author of The Naked Teacher: how to survive your first five years in teaching

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