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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 March 2008, 14:35 GMT
Was childhood ever innocent?
Kids smoking

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Children are growing up too fast, says a leading author. But hasn't society always worried that young people are experiencing adulthood too soon?

Fat, spoilt, feral and stupid. Who would be a child or teenager today? They even mistime their coming-of-age, apparently.

"I think children act like adults at an alarmingly early age," said Dame Jacqueline Wilson, who has sold more than 30 million books. Her remarks came as a poll by her publisher suggested that more than half of parents believe childhood is now over by 11.

But a glance through recent history shows that adults have long raised concerns about children "growing up" too quickly. Did they always?

EDWARDIAN

Edwardian child (pic by Museum of Childhood)
Clothes were Victorian-style and heavy fabrics restricted movement
Hoodies, meet your ancestors. Hooligan gangs such as the Scuttlers (Manchester) and the Peaky Blinders (Birmingham) plagued inner-cities in the late Victorian period.

This added to a feeling of a moral and physical decline among the youth, and was compounded by recruitment problems for the Boer War. The Boy Scout movement was founded in an effort to address that.

The constant threat to children of a thrashing meant parents and teachers wielded great power. Physical punishment was considered to be a matter of duty towards the child, says a spokeswoman for the Museum of Childhood in London.

"A surprising number of children got away with things like scrumping apples and placing booby traps. But disobedience or defiance of authority, whether of parent, teacher, or any other adult was also taken particularly seriously, and likely to lead to moral reproach as well as physical punishment."

They were abstaining [from sex] for a number of reasons, such as social pressure and lack of opportunity
Lesley Hall
Author
After the 1880 Education Act, schooling until 10 became compulsory, and this was raised to 14 in 1918. But that didn't end child labour at a stroke, says Colin Heywood, author of History of Children and Childhood in the West.

"There was quite a problem with truanting and some worked after school on the land or in a business," he says. "And there was a group left out, probably working in sweatshops."

Lesley Hall, author of Sex, Gender and Social Change, says a lot of young boys were being employed in dead-end jobs like messaging because they were not old enough to have proper apprenticeships and there was anxiety that they were hanging around street corners smoking.

Boys smoking
Under-age smoking is nothing new
There was a debate about introducing sex education to address ignorant girls getting pregnant, she says, but young people were not having pre-marital sex to the same degree as today.

"They were abstaining [from sex] for a number of reasons, such as social pressure and lack of opportunity. Children were less free and able to go their own way. People lived in neighbourhoods where everyone knew what was going on. There was a certain amount of community policing that we don't get now."

But that's not to say they weren't interested. The "monkey-walk" was a pre-courtship ritual common among 14 and 15 year olds, which enabled mingling of the sexes in a collective way. Members of the lower classes would go to some part of town and there the boys would hang around and watch and the girls walk past.

INTERWAR

Boys reading
Carefree days
Leading figures in psychology and psychiatry tried to better understand children, says Harry Hendrick, author of Children, Childhood and English Society, 1880-1990, and a key development was the start of the child guidance clinic.

About 1,000 middle class children attended the first clinic in about 1925 and paved the way for the provision of one in every local authority area under the 1944 Education Act. Susan Isaacs, a pioneer in education psychology, wrote Nursery World, which advised middle-class parents on rearing children.

Meanwhile Sir Cyril Burt and John Bowlby advanced understanding of juvenile delinquency.

POSTWAR

"The militarised society was gradually fading and with it the hierarchy and deference that characterised it. And a key shift in the child-parent dynamic came in this period, says Hugh Cunningham, author of The Invention of Childhood.

Cowboys and Indians, 1955
Post-war Britain was one big playground
Until then, children who worked after leaving school had given their earnings to their parents, getting some pocket money in return. But now they kept it, either because their parents wanted to make a sacrifice for their offspring or because the children insisted it was their own money to spend.

The word "teenager" was coined in 1941 and by the early 50s the concept of the sexually-charged, rebellious youngster emerged through the likes of Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, not a lot has changed to teenage sexuality since the 1950s, especially for boys, says sex psychologist Dr Petra Boynton.

What's altered since the 50s is that then women were more likely to be virgins when they married but now they are getting married later and having their sexual experiences beforehand."

60s & 70s

The start of the age of mass-consumption marked another moral panic, this time about the influence rock 'n' roll was having on young people. There was a newly-emancipated working-class in the 60s, and young people had cash and optimism in abundance.

The runaway success of Dr Benjamin Spock's self-help book, Baby and Childcare, helped renew enthusiasm, mainly in the US but also in the UK, for strengthening the family, against the then pervasive Communist threat.

"The nuclear family for people like John Bowlby [a British psychoanalyst noted for his work in child development] and Benjamin Spock represented the best of liberal democracy. It would be a happy place and a place of affluence and would stand against agitators."

But 1973, and the economic downturn, was a year when for the first time people became pessimistic and not optimistic about childhood, says Cunningham.

"Until then there was a clear agenda which dominated public discourse that we were making life better for children - the welfare state, NHS and education - but in the 70s we began to lose that confidence and now we never see optimism in reports about childhood."

80s TO PRESENT

Since the mid-90s the internet, lads mags and an abundance of sexual imagery through TV and video has created a more sexual culture for young people, says Boynton. But it's an aspirational not an educational version of sex that increases anxiety.

It makes the whole question of when childhood ends very difficult because dependency is regarded a sign of childhood
Hugh Cunningham
Yet there is no evidence that teenagers are sexually active any earlier, she says. About three-quarters are having sex around the age of consent.

A survey last week found that most adults believed children's well-being was being damaged because childhood had become too commercial. In the early 20th Century they were targeted by Meccano and teddy manufacturers, now it's iPods and mobile phones on their wish-list.

But this love of things shiny and new has lent them a unlikely new authority as effective gatekeepers, over their adult parents, to the perplexing world of home entertainment technologies. Yet the focus on home entertainment has also been a result of children being kept indoors.

Boy holds sand mobile phone
Used to be sand castles, now sand phones
"They're not allowed to play as much on their own, but danger is part of life," says Hendrick. Teenagers don't know how to move around their cities. "In that sense there has been change but it's hard to know what the impact of that is."

Parents now subsidise their children to a very late age, in a way unprecedented in history, says Cunningham, buying them houses in their 20s and 30s.

"This is a reverse from the normal flow of money from children to parents. It makes the whole question of when childhood ends very difficult because dependency is regarded a sign of childhood."

Far from growing up too fast, he says, they don't grow up fast enough.


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