Infantilisation: the collapse of adult authority?

Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Saturday 15 October, Church House, London


Millennials have become infamous for having been brought up by overprotective parents, who shield them from physical and emotional harm. It’s said this has created a risk-averse, over-dependent generation of ‘snowflakes’. Such over-protection has continued as children become adults: some parents even attend their offspring’s job interviews.

In policy circles, this expansion of childhood has led to demands that we should raise the age for selling cigarettes, drinking alcohol and more. Yet this trend exists alongside demands for votes at 16. We seem unable to distinguish between dependent children and independent young adults, or how to exert adult authority.

Children are also frequently imbued with grown-up motives and understanding, a trend dubbed by sociologists as ‘adultification’. Sex education lessons are full of adult concepts; toddlers are encouraged to read by sexualised drag queens. School-yard bullying incidents have been transformed into ‘hate crimes’ that must be reported to outside authorities. In August, it was reported the Metropolitan Police had strip searched 650 children between 2018 and 2020. The Met has since conceded that they have ‘given officers advice around dealing with schools, ensuring that children are treated as children’. We might be worried that they needed reminding.

Conversely, once the line between adults and children is erased, appropriate adult authority – for example, in terms of disciplining children’s poor behaviour – can be demonised as authoritarian. Newspapers are full of stories of youth rampaging, out-of-control, with adults refusing to intervene, often fearing that they will be punished. Indeed, recently Ofsted downgraded the rating of one Kent school from ‘good’ to ‘inadequate’ because it was too strict, noting that ‘many pupils find this oppressive’, while their parents slammed the enforcing of ‘militaristic’ school rules such as mandatory morning smiles, compulsory eye contact with staff, and calling teachers ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’.

Where do we draw the line between protecting children and giving them responsibility? Is it right to use state authority to criminalise childish behaviour? What does being a child or being an adult mean today?

Jessica Butcher MBE
tech entrepreneur; co-founder, Tick.; co-founder, Blippar; commissioner, Equality and Human Rights Commission

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, The Road to Ukraine: how the West lost its way and 100 Years of Identity Crisis: culture war over socialisation

Jacob Phillips
director, Institute of Theology and Liberal Arts, St Mary’s University, Twickenham; author, Obedience is Freedom

Barry Smith
freelance education consultant; former headmaster, Great Yarmouth Charter Academy; former founding deputy head, Michaela School; former regional director, Hackney New School

Don Watkins
author, Free Market Revolution, Equal Is Unfair and I Am Justice

Sally Millard
director of finance; co-founder, AoI Parents Forum