The Dangers of Shrinking Childhood

In a debate about lowering the voting age to 16, I made some remarks in the House of Commons about the dangers of shrinking childhood which attracted some controversy.

My main motivation for entering politics was to improve the welfare and life chances of children, and I have poured more energy into this issue than any other since being elected as an MP.

Childhood is a magical and precious time in a person’s life and should be viewed as a good in itself and not just a preparation for adulthood. It should be a time without responsibilities or worries to discover the world and to play.

Children born today can expect to live to 100 which means that the percentage of life they spend as a childhood is becoming smaller.

At the same time, there are a range of forces impinging on childhood and pushing down the age at which we start to view someone as an adult. Children are increasingly exposed to violence, sexual images, profane language, and troubling adult themes in television and film, and now this is becoming much more accessible and shareable because of social media.

There is now more pressure on children to study and prepare for later life: they face more academic exams which they have to take seriously even at a very young age. It is not unheard of for parents to employ private tutors for children just starting primary school. This relentless hothousing creates a vicious circle as other parents want their children to compete with their peers.

A 2008 Cambridge University study found that children in the UK were among the most assessed and examined in the world, and because the quality of a school and its teachers is largely determined by the results of these tests, they have very high stakes for all involved. And this was before Michael Gove was let loose on our education system.

Studies have found that puberty is starting at a younger age in developed Western countries, with one finding that in 1920 puberty began for girls at the age of 14.6 years but that now it starts at 10.5 years. Many reasons have been offered for this and apparently there is a strong link between increased Body Mass Index and early onset of puberty. Whatever the case, it is an undeniable shrinking of childhood.

The majority of the legal rights of adulthood including the right to vote accrue at 18, and in order to best preserve childhood that is where they should stay. The earlier these rights are granted, the more pressure we put on childhood.

The UK is almost alone in Europe in letting young people join the army at the age of 16. This is often cited as an inconsistency that should lead us to lower the voting age to 16, but I think a proper remedy to this inconsistency would instead be to raise the age of military service.

Unlike many other European countries we have a relatively high age of sexual consent: it is 16 in the UK, but in France, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Greece it is 15, and in Austria, Germany, Portugal and Italy it is 14. Outside of Europe, in China, Brazil, and Columbia among others, the age of consent is also 14. There have been calls to lower the age of consent in the UK from some very senior and respectable experts. Whilst I respect these considered opinions, I reject the idea because I think it will lead to a further shrinking of childhood.

It seems to me that at a time of great concern about child abuse and the risks posed to children by sexual predators, it would be a serious mistake to lower the age of consent.

We also have to recognise that all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood are interlinked: if we grant a particular extra right to young people, then we imply that they are mature enough to take on other extra rights. There is a slippery slope from lowering the voting age to lowering the age of other rights and this could include lowering the age of consent.

Sometimes in politics an idea becomes very fashionable – this is currently the case with votes at 16 which was seen as a success in the Scottish referendum and has since become Labour Party policy. I think it is important that politicians take a principled stand against these trends, and in the case of votes at 16, because of my deep concerns about the shrinking of childhood, I will continue to oppose it.


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