7 JANUARY 2002

What's happening to childhood? A shocking new television programme reveals that snogging is a favourite pastime of today's 11-year-olds. But how can parents halt this rush to adulthood? ANNE DEMPSEY reports

When sex becomes child's play

"Tarts are nice. You don't want someone boring who won't do anything," says James.

"If you won't kiss a boy, they dump you and call you frigid," says Alice.

Pub talk from a teenage boy? Coffee shop chat from a teenage girl? No; they are two 11-year-olds talking candidly to the TV cameras.

In an Irish Independent survey, published on December 31, 2001, most people said there was too much sex on television. Many adults express ongoing concern about the explicit nature of material in films, game shows and soaps on television. But while adults fret and do nothing, children watch and absorb. Now a new BBC documentary reveals just how much 11-year-olds know about adult sex and how this may be affecting their own behaviour.

Sex Life, a three-part BBC series which begins this week, draws on a recent British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, (Natsal). One programme deals with middle-aged women and the dating game, and another looks at long-term love and how it evolves.

But Kids is the programme that will have Irish parents reaching for their comfort blanket. It airs on January 13, and features a group of fresh-faced 11-year-olds from Banwell Junior School, north Somerset, as they reflect on life, love ... and sex. We see them watching a cartoon version of intercourse and giving a suitably embarrassed response. But it's what they do and say outside of the classroom that is most disturbing.

James is 11 and is not talking here about jammy confectionery: "Tarts are nice, you don't want someone boring who won't do anything," he says. Alice, barely out of alice bands, is already feeling the pressure to belong: "If you won't kiss a boy, they dump you and call you frigid."

The picture that emerges is one of post-innocence. Even if it's all talk, it's still not the kind of issues you expect children to be concerned with.

On a school trip, the girls arrive with bags of make-up which they apply expertly while discussing who is going out with whom, and what they get up to. "She lets James do what he wants to her, and we all know what that is," says one.

While they still need their parents as reference points, the question, "Mum, why do condoms come in different flavours?" is not one many mothers expect from a son not long out of babyhood. By all accounts, snogging is a favourite pastime, and the children report "tingly feelings" during smooching sessions.

Harry, small enough to pass for eight, says he wants to find someone he has "something in common with before dating".

What on earth is happening to childhood?

Time was that parents had a long breathing space between the toddler temper tantrums and the dawn of adolescent angst. During the latency period from age seven to 12, their offspring ate all round them, settled down to explore their world of school, home and pals, and more or less accepted authority.

Pre-puberty at age 11-12 was heralded with locked bathroom doors, erratic behaviour and clouds of deodorant, (the girls became difficult too), leading to the stormy years of adolescence. These ended around age 18 when a greasy curtain of hair parted to reveal a surprisingly pleasant young adult.

Such comfortable divisions of childhood have been severely breached in recent years. Perhaps we should have heeded the warning signs when dolls stopped being chunky love objects and were reinvented as slender, full-breasted blondes with a seductive wardrobe and lifestyle. When Barbie was joined by boyfriend Ken, adult relationships came into the nursery.

While there is no contemporary Irish research on tweenyhood that state newly emerging between eight and 13 the signs of early sexualisation are all around us too. Only a few decades ago Irish folk wondered at stories from America where 14-year-olds indulged in exotic-sounding practices, such as dating and going steady.

Today Irish parents are often touchingly grateful if their teenagers wait until 14 before beginning the mating game. Underaged and over-sexed is the description that could be applied here too with evidence abounding of young Romeo and younger Lolita, never mind Juliet. The internet advice service Parentline reports that teenage-type problems can now begin at age 10. Teachers also agree that pre-adolescent mood swings start in fifth class in primary school.

Calls to ISPCC's Childline indicate that some 12-year-olds are engaged in sexual experimentation, or feel under pressure to do so. The age of puberty has been falling steadily due to increased body weight and mass, which is linked to better health and nutrition. One in six girls reaches puberty by the age of eight, compared with one in 100 a generation ago; with one in 14 boys beginning puberty at age eight, compared to one in 150 of their father's generation.

Nowadays it is almost impossible for children to be innocent. They can watch everything from giving birth to lesbian kisses on EastEnders and Coronation Street, and even if we ban some programmes at home, they are still going to hear about them in school.

It is fitting, perhaps, that television should be the medium to show us what our children are thinking and doing, because many people believe television itself is the medium largely responsible for this pre-teen sexual behaviour.  Kaye Wellings, who conducted the British research on early sexual experience for Natsal, says: "My theory is that when we were children you didn't see grown-ups being observably sexy. Now you do, and children will always play at what they see grown-ups doing."

So is this all it is, playing mammies and daddies with the private bits left in? Or in changing times, should we now review the way parents, teachers and policymakers deal with childhood and adolescence?

Reamonn O Donnchadha is a teacher, psychotherapist and author of The Confident Child. His new book Be Confident will be published in the spring.

"I would call it premature sexualisation, something which is happening before the child is ready. I think there are a number of reasons for it. Improved diet and medicine have speeded up the maturation process. Socially there is probably more openness in families, with children knowing what their parents do in bed.

"One of the main things for me about this rush to adulthood is an impatience among adults to let children be children. I believe the parental wish for children to be more independent is a projection of the parent's own desire to be independent of their children. "The outcome is that the child's development today is accelerated socially and physically in terms of street cred; but the inner emotional development is retarded and often ignored.

"The key to this premature sexualisation is that children are having virtual experiences. The bottom line with television and video is that children now see so much at a cerebral level and understand so little at an experiential and emotional level."

So what needs to happen?

"Well, if we are to let children be children, it follows that parents must be parents, and begin to think more deeply about what it means to be a parent.

"What feelings does it bring up in me to be the mother of this child? How much time do I spend with him or her? How do I play with her, do I play with her, how do I listen, who do I let mind them and for how long? A child's attitude to being a child will be vitally related to his parents' attitude to being his parent.

"Watching television with your kids is good on two fronts, as it is spending time together and it helps you pick up on the ideas you see."

If sexual scenes come up on television, discussing them openly will, O Donnchadha believes, give them a very different context. "I began with the value of openness in the home about sexuality and I think we were far too negative and secretive in the past. It's good for children to know of their parents' sexuality, and within this to create the notion that a sexual relationship is to do with closeness.

"If children see their parents in a healthy relationship, they will begin to learn that it is not just a physical act but something with feeling and emotions and commitment."


The Confident Child and Being Confident by Reamonn O Donnchadha, New Leaf, price 11.43

This report by Anne Dempsey




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