“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.