Writer and broadcaster

Child’s play for adults. Published in The Guardian.

It’s debatable when I actually became an adult. According to various criteria it probably wasn’t until I left home at the rather late age of 22 and bought my own home at the rather early age of 22 – coincidentally, also the year I finally got really friendly with a man. Or it could be when I went into full-time employment – which I would argue was aged seven (Italian parents will insist offspring join the family business) but the tax office would say was when I was 18. Financial independence – another supposed marker for adulthood – has been gained and lost at varying times between the ages of 14, when such things were judged on the ability to fund a chocolate run to the newsagent’s, and now, aged 38.

Two recent studies, here and in the US, have shown we now become adults much later in life. Adulthood being judged not on the budding of breasts (which these days applies to both sexes) or the ability to vote, but on when one moves away from home, is financially independent, starts a family. In the first half of the 20th century, the University of Pennsylvania found, most men were able to support a family by the time they were 20. These days it’s five years later, with parenthood often – and rather sensibly – being put off until they are 30-plus.

In the British study, conducted by the Economic and Social Research Council, people born in 1958 and 1970 were compared. Two-thirds of the women born in 1958 had become mothers by the time they were 30, compared with only half the women born in 1970. Not only are we not starting families young but we’re not leaving home either. One in six men born in 1970 – twice the number compared with those born in 1958 – have either never left home or have flown back there.

This surprises me not at all. We’ve got it all the wrong way around. We want children to grow up really fast, and as adults we want to be the children we never were. What happened to individual stages to be savoured for what they were? Perhaps technology is to blame. We are so used to fast forwarding to our favourite bit of music or film, and then being able to go back to the beginning, we think we can do this in life, too.

It starts horrifyingly young. “Have you been playing your baby music?” I was repeatedly asked when pregnant. The answer was always no. Let her enjoy the relative peace and quiet, for those 40 weeks I wanted her to be able to be “just” a foetus. Then there are the parents who rush their babies into starting solids unnecessarily – and dangerously – early. Established on such a diet, there is baby yoga to attend, various supposedly brain-stimulating videos to watch, unfamilial languages to be learned. Put those babies to work!

So it goes, unremittingly, on: homework, something awful called “structured play”, after-school activities, until these children “grow up” and realise that they don’t want to, just yet. For whose benefit is all this rushing? Is it any wonder that when we are supposed to magically turn into adults we think: hang on a minute, I just wannahavvalittlefun? And what better way to have fun – and spite those parents who tried to turn you into mini-adults too early – than to base yourself in the family home, with little responsibility and a laundry service.

I say “we”, but I was fantastically lucky. My parents always let me enjoy each and every stage of my life. I had a clearly defined childhood and adolescence – during which I played and had fun. I barely used my brain for anything remotely serious until I was 18. Because I’ve spent half my life playing, my memories of playtime are many, and still as fresh as a snowflake. I remember that play was great with a grown up, but sometimes you just wanted them to be there, in the background, while you did your own thing. Hence I don’t need to be told how to play with my daughter now, as countless articles have done this week on the back of National Play Day last Wednesday; no more than I need to be told how to mix the perfect Martini – which is what I spent a timely proportion of my 20s learning. Neither do I need feel the need to hijack her playtime for myself – I fully experienced that stage in my own life.

The Children’s Play Council says a great many parents don’t know how to play anymore with their own offspring. They’re too competitive, don’t let their children take risks, or use their imagination. Adults “lead” play too much, they turn it into something structured and organised and, actually, not much fun at all. But is it any wonder? If these adults, as children, were being rushed into the next “phase” of life and up, up into adulthood by their parents, what do they remember of playing?

Aristotle wrote that “Men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre”. And become adults only by fully being a child, first.


First published in The Guardian.