Children being children

Are sex and shopping really the worst problems facing the nation's children?

"Letting children be children". Thus runs the title of yesterday's much anticipated report into the "commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood" compiled by Reg Bailey of the Mothers' Union. The phrase is, of course, profoundly meaningless. It's what pollsters call a "nodalong" -- a statement that's guaranteed to have members of focus groups nodding along to it. Not because it's deep or would stand much scrutiny, but because it's superficially obvious.

The Bailey Review is full of nodalong statements. Such as: "We live in a society that is changing at a bewildering rate"; "children are under more pressure from advertisers and marketers to consume than they have in the past." This isn't surprising. The "research" that the report draws on consisted mainly of questionnaires and focus group sessions, and some of the questions seemed designed to elicit nodalong responses. Nine out of ten parents, for example, agreed with the suggestion that "these days children are under pressure to grow up too quickly."

Another major problem with the Bailey Review is that it never defines its terms. Regarding the key term, "sexualisation", we are told that while the Review was asked to come up with a definition "to help shape practice and regulation", Bailey preferred not to.

The conclusion of this Review is that parents are the experts in deciding whether something is appropriate for their child and in discussing this with their children as they grow up. The most effective way to ensure that broadcasting, advertising, goods and services are appropriate for children is to pay closer attention to parents' views rather than develop complicated, and contested, definitions of commercialisation and sexualisation.

This self-denying ordinance does have one advantage: it avoids much of the jargon and misapplied research found last year in Dr Linda Papadopoulos's report for the previous government. Indeed, while paying that unfortunate document some lip-service, Bailey seems to have placed greater trust in the more coherent report into the commercialisation of childhood produced for the Scottish Parliament by a group of academics chaired by Professor David Buckingham.

Bailey is at least aware, then, that there's little evidence for the harm allegedly caused by "sexualisation". Unfortunately, he doesn't much care.

"Insufficient evidence to prove conclusively that there is harm to children does not mean that no harm exists," he writes. "If parents are concerned that their children are exposed to potential harm from commercialisation and sexualisation, it is their common sense and their sense of what is right for their family that tells them this."

It might be. It might also be the prevalence in sections of the media of scare stories that told them this. No-one, I think, would deny that today's children are growing up in a world in which there's more open discussion of sex, and more sexually explicit material within easy reach, than was the case fifty or even twenty years ago. And this naturally disturbs many parents. But it's not obvious that children are any more than bystanders in this "hyper-sexualised" culture, most of which is, by its very nature, aimed squarely at adults.

It may well be that, as so often these days, concerns about children -- especially girls -- are being used by adults as a proxy for something else. People whose real problem is with consumerism or sexual "objectification" might be latching onto children, who are assumed (perhaps wrongly) to be uniquely vulnerable, and who are also seen as repositories of unsullied by what Bailey in his Foreword calls "the seamier side of life".

The phrase "let children be children" captures this pervasive sense of unease which fuels much of the review. But what could it possibly mean?

The widespread fear being alluded to, plainly, is that children these days grow up too fast. And that someone or something (the commercial world, mainly) is standing in the way of their natural state, which is "being children". More specifically, the fear is that they are too aware of sexuality and start having sex too early, when they should be playing with dolls.

But this begs all sorts of questions. What is a child anyway? Are we talking about younger children, who may be less affected by "sexualisation" than teenagers? Or older children, for whom discovering their adult identity -- including their sexual identity -- is natural and unavoidable? Is the desire to keep children as children -- protected from the big, bad, sexualised world -- for as long as possible -- even a healthy one?

By historical standards, children today are not growing up particularly fast. Quite the opposite, in fact: children today have less freedom, less independence, and longer to wait before achieving fully adult status than ever used to be the case. Time was when the great majority of 16-year-olds would be out working for a living, have left home by 18 at the latest and be well on the way to pipe and slipperdom by the age of 30.

Childhood as we understand it is a product of the Romantic movement -- and as a mass phenomenon is more recent than that. The Victorians, who first idealised middle class children, sent working-class children up chimneys and had an age of consent (for girls) of twelve. The concept of age-appropriate clothing, much discussed by Bailey, is likewise a 19th century idea: in earlier centuries children wore miniature versions of what adults wore, and did many of the things that adults did.

The concentration on sexuality in discussions of childhood like the Bailey Review -- whether or not justified in the light of modern commercial imperatives -- is thus highly indicative. It suggests a skewed and panic-driven perspective. Why concentrate on sexual awareness at all? Why not consider the effect on children of, for example, the examination sausage-machine that has destroyed many childrens' experience of school life? Or the impact that the culture of child-safety -- coupled with ever-growing fear of paedophiles -- has had on the opportunity many children have for unsupervised play? Or the increasing intolerance of childhood mischief, now recategorised as "anti-social behaviour" and attracting criminal or quasi-criminal sanction?

The Bailey Review's concept of childhood, then, is both too narrow -- being overly concerned with sexual innocence as a defining characteristic -- and too binary, drawing a sharp and artificial distinction between childhood and the adult world.

Children, moreover, have minds and opinions of their own. In one of the survey questions quoted in the Review, nearly half of all children agreed with the statement "It's difficult to find clothes in the shops that I like and that my parents would allow me to wear." Is this a problem of retail choice -- as Bailey seems to think -- or of an age-old conflict between childrens' natural desire to push boundaries and parents' wish to keep them as children for as long as possible?

Surely it's the latter. And not only is it unresolvable by any law or code of practice, it's not actually such a bad thing.

 

Nelson Jones runs the Heresy Corner blog and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.