- Philip Johnston
London Telegraph -
In his Christmas Day sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury lamented the early adulthood of modern children. He maintained that they were being forced to grow up more quickly than ever and, in our rush to make them independent, we were robbing them of the ability to learn and mature. It is a good theme to preach at this time of the year – but I don't think it is true.
In previous generations, children often left school at 14 or 16, started work, married, went to war or took part in National Service, all before the old age of majority of 21. Nowadays, they are just as likely to be in full-time education until their mid-twenties and still living at home, shielded from the concerns and anxieties of adult responsibility from which Dr Williams wants them to be further protected.
If anything, the opposite of what he said is the case. Arguably, children are less prepared now for adulthood than ever – which may be no bad thing, since another sermon could easily be preached: why are adults today treated like children?
We are told on a daily basis how to live our lives by people who seem to have taken it upon themselves to assail us with instructions, demands, advice and warnings, spoken as well as written. Commuters travelling into London are constantly hectored. On the Sunday after the clocks went back in October, passengers waiting on the platform of my local station were treated to the following: "Here is an announcement. The hour has changed this weekend which means that it may be darker than usual when you return home at your normal time. Please take care."
Whenever it rains, we are informed in grave tones that this means the station concourse will be wet and therefore slippery. During the recent cold spell, such cautions were being issued every five minutes; there were, however, fewer explanations of why the trains had stopped running. In the summer, when the temperature rises much above 60F, we are importuned to carry a bottle of water at all times as though we are about to trek across the Sahara. We must also never forget to take all our belongings with us.
My favourite announcement advises passengers that beggars sometimes operate on the train and we must not give money to them because the rail company "has made a donation to a homeless charity on your behalf".
I am tempted to go and ask for it back; but if I see a beggar after this announcement I will certainly hand him a few bob.
Who is it that decides to issue such patronisingly idiotic advice, and why? Do they have training colleges dedicated to devising phrases that will sound irritating and condescending in equal measure?
The masters of this genre are, of course, government departments, which seemingly employ armies of bureaucrats compiling statements of the blindingly obvious presumably because they have nothing else to do. The festive season always sees a bumper crop and this Christmas has been no exception.
We are grateful to Gillian Merron, a health minister, for this gem: "Whatever the weather, a traditional festive walk is a great way for families and friends to avoid that sluggish feeling and have a more active Christmas." You don't say. In any case, how does the suggestion that we venture out for this walk "whatever the weather" square with the counsel of the AA or the Met Office whenever a flake of snow falls from the sky that we should "only travel if absolutely necessary". Soon, we will go to work accompanied by a disembodied voice telling us to "breathe in, breathe out".
We are exhorted and harangued, often for no obvious reason other than that someone or some agency feels it necessary to ensure all possibility of risk or potential for discomfort are removed from our lives. I had thought this had something to do with a fear of being sued – but there is a deeper reason.
We live increasingly in a world where it is assumed that the authorities, whoever they are, will look after us. The trouble is that many people believe they should be looked after. Society is gradually being infantilised; and it is this that destroys individualism, erodes common sense, removes discretion, stifles creativity and entrenches dependency.
We are all to blame: it is easy to point to a scapegoat when anything goes wrong, and our children are chaperoned wherever they go, yet they are more adventurous than we were, travelling the world and hurling themselves out of planes or off bridges attached to elasticated rope. Only at home are they cossetted by parents with a disproportionate idea of danger and a government that thinks it is helping matters by turning much of the adult population into a reservoir of suspected child molesters.
The biggest change we have seen in recent times is not children growing up too fast, but a paternalistic bossiness that is simply a displacement activity for sensible government and which has infected most walks of life. But, just in case: as you celebrate the arrival of the new year, you will take care, won't you?