Child of Our Time: Turning 20 – Watching people grow up is hypnotic

TV review: The real lesson of the show is that children aren’t projects to be moulded

The weird thing about childhood is of course that, when you’re bang in the middle of it, the process of growing up seems to last several lifetimes. But from the outside looking in it comes and goes in a flash.

Just ask any parent who turns around one morning to find the tiny person they nurtured from birth is suddenly a fully-fledged adult, with their own hopes, fears, flaws, tattoos, credit history, annoying boyfriend/girlfriend etc.

And of course childhood isn’t just something we benignly experience. It is a thing that happens to us – that is, in a way, inflicted upon us, largely outside our control. That is one of the lessons of Child of Our Time: Turning 20 (BBC Two 9pm), which revisits some of the 25 millennium babies whose early lives the series set out to chart in 1999. It’s a gripping watch, if perhaps not quite as devastatingly insightful as it fancies itself.

Young people are a product of their environment; parents aren't perfect, just flawed muddlers trying to do their best

Two decades on the “class of 2000” are all young adults. Yet they are still wrestling with their upbringing and how it has shaped them. Eve is a student midwife who has had to work hard to fill the void left by her late mother, Caroline, claimed by cancer when her daughter was eight.


There there is Rhianna, whose parents were so radically different it was a miracle they kept their relationship going as long as they did. Father Andy is a take-the-world-as-you-find-it type who believes fervently in living in the moment; Rhianna’s mother Tanya is organised and practical.

Blazing rows were relatively rare when Rhianna was growing up. However, the passive-aggressive atmosphere at home was asphyxiating and as a child she acted out in anger.

We are also reintroduced to Jamie. His happy-go-lucky childhood teetered after his dad was rumbled having an affair. One day the boy walked in on his mother attacking her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s shirts with a scissors.

Jamie had already been diagnosed with diabetes, a bombshell that had sent his father retreating into himself (though not so far in that he didn’t have time for extra-curricular activities). In his teens Jamie went on a bender with his pals and slipped into a diabetic coma. Now he is a trainee chef with a baby on the way and dreams of one day opening a restaurant.

Time lapse

As pop sociology it’s unclear quite what Child of Our Time is trying to achieve aside from re-stating the obvious. Young people are a product of their environment; parents aren’t perfect, just flawed muddlers trying to do their best.

None of this is a bombshell and Child of Our Time lacks the civic high-mindedness of Michael Apted’s Seven Up series, which sought to show how class and privilege guided the destiny of young people in Britain.

Still, watching people grow up essentially via time lapse has its own hypnotic qualities. Of the 21 couples who signed up for the project in 1999 12 have separated. Three of the kids we have followed are now parents themselves. Yet the real lesson is that children aren’t projects to be moulded.

What they really need is love and kindness in the here and now. That’s hardly a searing revelation but Child of Our Time communicates the point forcefully. As Eve says: “Don’t try to shape them in any particular way. Be there for them.”