Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
“Children are growing up too fast these days”, you will often hear it said. Certainly, when a 13 year old girl, with whom I had been friends for some years, showed me the contents of her phone videos and the sexual activity to which she had been exposed and pressurised to partake in, I felt a deep shock, sorrow and anger that our children have been sexualised by the internet to such appalling, and epidemic proportions.
Easy access to hard-core pornography is having a devastating impact on childrens’ ability to forge healthy relationships, and especially healthy sexual relationships. Severe abuse in relationships is already all too common. Despite all the good work being done on informing young people what is and is not consent and acceptable behaviour, it is alarming to anticipate how prevalent abuse may become as this generation, who have been fed such a distorted view of sexual relationships, grow up.
Yet whilst our young people are being driven too quickly to grow up in the wrong way, in many ways, they have perhaps also been discouraged from growing up in the right way.
As a failed aspirant Olympian swimmer, I am a broken-record proponent of the importance of sport – not only in all its more commonly lauded physical health benefits, but because of its role in teaching children the hard lessons of life in a safer, softer environment: if you want to achieve something, you have to work for it – and what you achieve will matter all the more because of the self-esteem you will have built in knowing that you pushed yourself to get it.
Sport teaches lessons about the viscitudes of luck: yes, sometimes your goggles do fall off and suffocatingly grip your cheeks in that important race. It’s not fair, but there it is. Live with it, and move on. It teaches you how to lose – and also how to win. It teaches you to work as a team, but also to take ultimate responsibility for your own actions, your own performance. Sport taught me that simply wanting something is not enough – and however hard you train, you will never stand on that Olympic poduium. But that does not make you a failure. Whether you pick yourself up and do something else with your life determines that.
Thankfully, over the last five years of this Government, we have begun to erode the toxic ‘everyone’s a winner’ culture that shields our children from the inescapable realities of life waiting for them just outside the school gates in the jobs market and beyond. Constructive and nurturing competition are increasingly coming back into schools. Clampdowns on exam re-sits and the ending of the distortion of GCSE ‘Equivalents’ have forged a much more honest system of recognising achievement – and of identifying, helping and nurturing those who do not reach the pass mark.
But as we attempt to enable our young people to grow up in the right way, whilst attempting to shield them from growing up in a damaging way, we still have one anachronism to over-come: the voting age.
It simply seems ludicrous that you can give meaningful consent to have sex, work and go to war at 16, yet are said to be ‘too immature’ have a say in who governs your country. We often talk about getting young people engaged with politics, but if you can do nothing about what you are engaged with, what is the point? Yes, young people can be easily led – but just look at any MP’s mailbox and see the number of adults emailing in who have been fed misleading information by certain groups, and you will see that going astray is far from a preserve of the young. All of us by our very nature can be easily led or misled.
From my own memories of what I was like as a teenager, and from the many conversations I have with 16 year olds, I know that this is a period in your life when you feel passionately about things. It may be that many 16 year olds feel passionately that politics is doing a very bad job of serving the country (they would not be alone). But that opinion needs an avenue for expression.
Equally, one of the things that made me most angry, in my indiscriminately anti-establishment teenage years, was the fact that people didn’t listen to my opinion just because I was young . I remember being told about the ‘EEC’ ( as it was then) and reacting incredulously. “ But the French, the Germans, the English and the Italians even drive so differently!” I remember saying. “Think of how different they are in all those other ways! How on earth could you ever make one state out of them? No good could come of it!”
I wondered if greater brains than mine had found some mysterious answer to this screamingly obvious flaw in Eurocrats’ plans. I may only have been 14 or 15, And despite one or two squeaky teachers (you know who you are…) who loved to try to stifle my passion and anger about things by telling me to ‘grow up’ and not ‘be so immature’, it turns out my naive observation wasn’t so wrong after all.
From personal experience, I know that the best way to get a young person to be disengaged and childish is to deny them responsibility on the reasoning that they are disengaged and childish. If you tell a young person, especially one with a passion about things, that they are juvenile and immature, that is exactly how they will behave – in your face.
Yet that is what the current law is suggesting to our 16 year olds. (And young people can quite reasonably say that politicians telling anyone to ‘grow up’ is a bit rich…) Until we give people the vote at 16, I don’t want to hear any politician worrying that ‘our youth are disengaged from politics’. It won’t be a panacea for the issue, but it is a vital start.