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Seán Moncrieff: Parents don’t mould their children as much as they might like to think

Daughter Number Four’s birthday became more of a birthday week, not with the usual play centre party, but a pampering session

Daughter Number Four had a birthday, and because it fell on a Wednesday, it became more of a birthday week. An aunt and uncle turned up the weekend before with presents and cake. On the day itself, there were celebrations at school and in childcare involving cake, and that evening her siblings turned up for a carefully curated birthday dinner (McDonald’s) and even more cake.

By the Thursday we were making appointments to get ourselves checked for diabetes, and this was all before the birthday party scheduled for that weekend.

In Daughter Number Four’s class, most of the birthday parties have taken place in venues designed for this kind of thing: noise-filled warehouses. The floors are always sticky, the toilets always blocked and there’s always a faint aroma of vomit. The kids bounce off padded surfaces for an hour, then are whisked into a cell-like room where they are stuffed with junk food, tunelessly serenaded to Happy Birthday To You, and sent home with a party bag filled with sweets and cheap plastic toys which inevitably end up gathering dust under a sofa.

This is what happened last year, but since then there has been an adjustment in the foibles and fashions of her peer group. The play centre birthday party suddenly became passe, and has been replaced by more sophisticated diversions: a gaming truck or – as Daughter Number Four chose – a pampering session.


Before you start tutting in disapproval, I should point out that this did not take place in a spa in some five-star hotel. The venue is in an industrial estate and the service is specifically aimed at young girls. But the essential concept is the same. They get face masks, get their nails and hair done, a bit of perfume – it’s a slick operation and to witness it in action. But witnessing children acting like characters in Sex and the City is both cute and a bit creepy. They are eight years of age.

Along with beauty treatments, they get nibbles, a chocolate fondue with marshmallows and what is described as “kids champagne”. The grown-up cosplay comes with cosplay alcohol.

At the start of this year, there was a minor controversy in the UK when a family dining in a London pub (it was seven in the evening) asked if their child could have an apple juice in a champagne flute so they toast the new year. The pub refused, on the basis that this could be perceived as encouraging a child to drink alcohol.

The pub was perfectly entitled to make that refusal. Nonetheless, there was a lot of press fuming about nanny statism, and other commentary arguing that the pub was being responsible. If kids witness adults projecting the idea that alcohol equals happiness, this could be interpreted as meaning that there is no happiness without it.

Growing up doesn’t happen in a straight line. And the longer it takes, the better

But does that mean that if my daughter has something fizzy in a champagne flute, she will grow up to be a binge drinker? That feels like a stretch. Yet it was striking how all the kids at the party knew how to act in this situation. Because, presumably, they had all seen something similar at home: like they had already been programmed.

Daughter Number Four sees wine drinking in our house. At the weekends, and almost always in the context of a meal. And I honestly don’t know if this will “influence” her to drink, or influence how much she drinks, in later life. Parents don’t mould their children anywhere near as much as they might like to think. Their peers are hugely important, as well as all sorts of societal pressures.

When we got home, Daughter Number Four stole up to her room to play with her Barbies, almost as if she was exhausted from pretending to be an adult, and needed to get back to being a child again. Growing up doesn’t happen in a straight line. And the longer it takes, the better.