In a week in which Salma Hayek breastfed an African baby in Sierra Leone, the tabloids decided to devote more column space to a couple in Eastbourne, Essex. This is why.
Boy meets girl. Boy and girl have unprotected sex. Girl becomes pregnant. Girl decided to have baby. Boy and girl overjoyed. Boy 2 and Boy 3 come forward claiming paternity. Girl in tears defends her reputation. Boy 1 agrees to a paternity test. The nation waits with bated breath.
While this may read like just another episode of Jerry Springer, there is one small difference. The main characters in this tale are not adults but X-box obsessed children in school uniforms.
Last week, The Sun, ‘broke’ the story of how 13-year-old Alfie Patten and his 15-year-old girlfriend Chantelle Steadman had become one of Britain’s youngest parents when the latter gave birth to a girl. When the headline ‘Dad at 13’ and pictures of the 4-foot baby faced boy and his daughter, first appeared there was all round shock and horror. In the ensuing uproar, everyone from Conservative Party Leader David Cameron to Father Seamus of St Gregory’s Roman Catholic Church to neighbours of the young mother, weighed in with their opinions bandying about phrases like ‘broken Britain’.
Some say this story is nothing new in a country with the highest teenage birth rates in Western Europe — twice as high as in Germany, three times as high as in France and six times as high as in the Netherlands. While children as young as 11 and 12 have sired offspring in the past, what sets Alfie Patten apart is perhaps the fact that he looks about 8 and not 13. That his voice hasn’t even broken yet. That he does not know the meaning of the word ‘financially’. That he “… didn’t think about how we would afford it. I don’t really get pocket money. My dad sometimes gives me £10. I don’t know how much nappies cost. I think it’s a lot.”
Girls from deprived areas are five times more likely to become teenage mums in the UK. Many have low expectations of education and employment opportunities and babies are seen as a means of receiving Government benefits and a place of their own. Staying at home and raising children seems a far better way to live life than flipping burgers at McDonald’s. And how does the recent burst of young Hollywood mothers influence them? From Jamie Lynn Spears to Christina Aguilera, Charlotte Church and Jessica Alba, motherhood is now seen as a sexy, cool thing that young women who have it all are doing.
So has sex education failed? Should it be done away with? Should it be more than just a biological seminar on ‘what goes where?’ I received sex ed at the age of 10. Some would say that that is far too early. But it was done with a great deal of empathy and humour. We weren’t taught that sex was something shameful. Nor were we told that it was something to go out and try immediately. We were taught how important it was to respect our bodies, our feelings, how we shouldn’t feel pressurised and how sex was not a recreational activity to be taken lightly. And maybe the last point was the most important. Sex today is perceived by many teenagers as something ‘to do’ to pass the time. ‘We loved each other and decided to have sex’ is a common refrain.
Talks are already on with tabloids for ‘spill the beans’ stories of the parents and their lives. Max Clifford, celebrity PR guru whose former clients include Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty has been hired. I can already see magazine covers, book deals and a made for TV movie. All this makes sympathy for these kids and their families very hard. Instead all I feel is a dull anger. At them, and their decision to bring a child in to this world because “…it would be good to have a baby”. At their parents who allowed them to share a bed and then say they didn’t think they were having sex. (What did they think was going on? A friendly game of Monopoly?) And at the tabloids for printing photographs of Chantelle in school uniform holding her baby. What kind of a message does that send out to other young girls?
Alfie Patten’s grandmother, Susan, said she was loath to talk about her new great granddaughter — because she did not want to
“interfere with my son’s business interests”. If sex is a recreational activity these days, then perhaps children are little more than money-making propositions.
This piece appeared here.