Demonised – and sentimentalised

With slightly unfortunate timing, that great annual carnival of caring and tears, Children in Need night, has been followed in short order by a survey revealing that the British have distinctly ambivalent feelings towards children.

Commissioned by the Barnardo’s charity, the opinion poll recorded that almost half of those questioned believed the nation’s children were an increasing threat to each other and to adults while, even more bizarrely, 43 per cent felt that grown-ups needed more protection from the young. The amount of crime ascribed to children was four times higher than the true figure.

Can these views really be held in a society so child-obsessed that a newspaper can run a petition to sack social workers believed to have let children down, where children’s charities receive millions in donations, where the story of a missing four-year-old became a national obsession? Of course it can. As a society, we are now so confused and over-heated in our attitudes to childhood that it is beginning to seem like a miracle that the vast majority of young people grow up as normally as they do.

The Victorians were obsessed by the idea that childhood was a time of prelapsarian innocence; we are even more dangerously confused. On the one hand, childhood is sentimentalised, with the family unit holding at bay the corrupting forces of commercialism, violence and sex. On the other, as the Barnardo’s survey confirms, it is perceived as not innocent at all, but a growing source of menace.

We probably began to fear our children in the 1970s. It was then that horror stories, from VC Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, began to portray children as satanic – lethal little repositories of supernatural evil. The next phase of the thriller, arguably nastier and more sinister, presented children as victims of crime and abuse, a theme which has more recently been taken up in a slightly different form by those writing memoirs of their brutal childhoods.

Abuse has become part of the entertainment industry, and it worth considering how book publishers tend to package the hot new products of the genre. The kind of cover most often used on “misery memoirs” – the photograph of a child on a street corner, the wide-eyed stare at the camera, the scuffed, skinny legs – portray the kind of cute vulnerability that is an established staple of pornography.

For some reason, cruelty to children sells. It fascinates as it appals. Remember the anti-paedophile marches of the past, the extraordinary coverage of the Madeleine McCann case, the eagerness with which the media fell on reports of murder and torture (now, it seems, largely the product of an over-excited police investigation) in a Jersey children’s home.

Perhaps society’s gushing sentimentality towards children and its simultaneous fear of the young are closer than we think. In an infantilised culture, it would not be surprising if adults had taken to conflating their own lives with that of children, being moved by vulnerability and wary of wrongdoing in a way that has more to do with their own psychologies than any problem that may or may not be occurring within childish lives.

It is time perhaps to stop seeing individual tragedies as representing another frightening chapter in the history of childhood. Where there are problems in the care of children or in their behaviour, they need to be addressed. For the most part, though, it is worth remembering that most young people are growing up to be kinder than previous generations, and saner than the adult world deserves.