Opinion Articles

Is modern childhood over too soon?

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Netmums, the popular parenting website, recently asked 1,000 parents if they thought their children were growing up too quickly in twenty-first century Britain. In the survey, two thirds of respondents felt that childhood was over by the age of 12, as 'modern children are under much greater pressure and grow up far faster than previous generations.'

Of course, the Netmums survey was an opinion poll, which relied on parents' impressions of their children's experience, and was not a social scientific attempt to rigorously assess changes in children and young people's activities over time.

But it is ahistorical and draws false comparisons between the leisure activities of parents and today's 'tweens' and teenagers, making no allowance for technological change and the surprising continuities in social behaviour. The Apple iPad was singled out by the parents surveyed as one of the tools by which children and young people isolate themselves within the home, rather than playing outside as their parents claim they used to. This ignores the hours that teenage girls (author included) spent on the phone, before the digital revolution, and the soaring popularity of texting and social media. With steadily increasing space and comfort in British homes since the Second World War, accompanied by the growth of more home-based leisure and entertainment technology for all age-groups, it is untrue that the parents of today's children and teenagers were outside in all weathers, unlike their pre-1945 counterparts, for whom the street or youth club often was the only alternative to playing inside a cramped and over-crowded home. While technology and the home environment may differ, it does not mean that youngsters' behaviour has fundamentally changed.

Rather than 'snatching away the precious years', as Siobhan Freegard, co-founder of Netmums, puts it, modern life has created childhood as a special time for children from all social backgrounds. Prior to the industrialisation of Britain, the children of agricultural workers and farmers played a vital role helping with age-appropriate jobs, such as collecting eggs or helping around the home. Children remained important to the domestic economy well into the twentieth century. The introduction of compulsory elementary schooling in 1870 created a cadre of school inspectors to police the new crime of truancy. Yet truanting was often not a choice made by children wanting to escape from school. Girls were often kept away from school to help their mothers care for younger siblings and manage the household, whilst their brothers undertook various kinds of paid work outside the home. Many families were kept afloat thanks to contributions from young people's paid work.

The Netmums survey states that, 'whereas we used to think and feel that childhood ended at age 16, over 70% of parents polled said their child was no longer childlike by the age of 12', yet provides no evidence for childhood previously ending at 16, an idea that history demonstrates is relatively new. Until 1944, when the school leaving age was raised to 15, young people left school at 14 and began paid work days later. Working-class great-grandparents of many of today's teenagers were working and contributing to the household income at the age their descendents are now choosing their GCSEs. These great-grandparents participated in youth subcultures, hanging out on the streets, trying to catch the eye of the opposite sex, and frittering their money away on dances, fashion and the cinema. More affluent children and teenagers would have been contained in the nursery or sent to boarding school - hardly the free-range idyll imagined by Netmums.

Freegard states that 'a toxic combination of marketing, media and peer pressure means children no longer want to be seen as children, even when we as parents know they still are'. As the youth clubs and movements of the nineteenth century onwards found, young people have long been keen to acquire new skills and to take on responsibilities, as part of their progress to adulthood. The desire to seem older than their years and to 'fit in' was familiar to juvenile court magistrates from the 1920s onwards. The grandparents of today's teenagers were subject to regular concerns about their media consumption, from their reading of 'nasty' imported comics to their 'American' tastes in music and fervent following of the Beatles and other pop bands. Marketeers were keenly interested in their spending habits, as evidenced by Mark Abrams' 1959 survey, The Teenage Consumer, which drew attention to working-class teenagers spending their money on clothes, music, cosmetics and nights out.

Childhood is not ending earlier. It is easy to look back at one's own childhood, and to see it through the proverbial rose-tinted lenses. For example, we may remember playing out on the streets, but forget our parents' warnings not to stray beyond a certain point or the danger of talking to strangers. We forget that our perspective changes from that of the child exploring the world, to the parent worrying about the risks their own child is exposed to. Mourning a 'golden age' of childhood that never existed is not helpful for parents, carers and families; it creates the sense that parents are failing their children; they are not. We should celebrate children's transitions to adulthood, however challenging that may be in their teenage years.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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