‘All children, except for one, grow up’. So says J M Barrie in the first line of his classic novel Peter Pan.
And he goes on, in that first paragraph, to describe how his young heroine Wendy, aged just two, suddenly realises how she must grow up and that the world would change for her.
‘Two is the beginning of the end,’ writes Barrie rather darkly.
Unless you’re Peter Pan, you can’t argue with Barrie – every child has to grow up – but how quickly we expect that to happen now.
At two, Wendy could probably have expected a few more years playing in the Darling household’s nursery with her siblings, but nowadays youngsters are already having their pathway to adulthood firmly mapped out, with tests along the way to make sure they’re hitting the required standards.
Very soon, almost on day one of school, children will be ‘scored’ against a benchmark and from then on their progress will be judged against this.
And there are currently calls for compulsory sex education for children aged as young as five – surely an unhelpful glimpse into what lies ahead – this on top of the already present demands for them to be grown up, to look and behave like their favourite pop star or footballer.
As they grow, they’ll face extra pressure from their peers – to play computer games that are rated 18, to join social networks, to make decisions they’re perhaps not ready for.
As parents, we can try to protect them from this race to premature adulthood – relatively straightforward with youngsters, but what about teenagers? At what age do our young people stop being children? How do you judge when the time is right to let them make their own mistakes?
My mind turned to this question following the blanket news coverage about the three teenaged girls sneaking away from home to join ISIS in Syria – two 15-year-olds and their 16-year-old friend.
Then there was a small item in this paper last week about a 17-year-old being arrested over a graffiti attack. The court was told the boy was ‘of no fixed abode’.
The stories jarred because, in both cases, the protagonists are so young, but found themselves in pretty desperate situations.
It may be a bit of a cliché, but age does bring wisdom, or at least experience (the next best thing if you learn from it), and I wonder if we expect too much from our young people, a maturity beyond their years. Is that why a 15-year-old girl might think she’s able to weigh up the the pros and cons of running off to join a terror group?
And what sort of society is happy to see a 17-year-old described as having ‘no fixed abode’? At that age he should be in someone’s care, preferably his parents.
No, we can’t stop our offspring from growing up – and J M Barrie hints that Peter Pan’s perpetual boyhood is not as sugary nice as Disney’s interpretation – but perhaps it’s time to start applying the brakes a little; to let children enjoy childhood for just a bit longer.