Making sense of the concept of childhood
Outlining the features that may contribute to the idea that childhood is in crisis can be aided by documenting how the experience of being a child may have changed over time. Personal reflection may provide some insight into changes across generations, highlighting some of the differences and points of continuity between childhoods past and present. Remembering childhood commonly calls to mind benignly romantic fantasies of play and adventure, the polite and deliciously well-ordered escapades of The Famous Five or a looser version of magical freedom that bespeaks how things ought to be. A general assumption that childhood is not what it used to be and that this, in itself, signals catastrophe appears to saturate our social worlds. It is a cliché of adulthood that childhood remains the ‘best days of your life’. In this sense, nostalgia and loss appear as familiar features in conversations that reflect upon childhood. In the following activity you are encouraged to use your own childhood experience as a resource to reflect upon childhoods past and present.
Activity: Using personal experience
Reflecting on your own childhood, consider and make a note of some of the ways you spent your leisure time.
- Roughly how much leisure time did you have a) during school term time and b) during school holidays?
- Were you free to do whatever you wanted? What did you do? Did it involve siblings, friends or adults?
- How do your think your use of leisure time compares with that of children today? How would you describe and account for the main points of difference?
Growing up in a small Spa town in the English Midlands in the 1960s, my memory of childhood is temporally marked by the feeling of having acres of leisure time. Time seemed to stretch out before me as an endless and unbounded dimension that I struggled to make sense of. Homework was never insisted upon, there were no structured activities and I was allowed to play outside from an early age, about four or five. Filling time was a freewheeling and haphazard affair. I can recall playing with siblings, friends and other children I met in the fields across the road from where I lived and in the local park. Adult intervention was unknown. During summer holidays my five siblings and I were encouraged/told to vacate the house as soon as possible for as long as possible, only to return for a snack to keep us going. Moving in and out of different friendship groups, we made dens on the riverbank, created alternative homes and knew all the local characters including the older ‘bad’ boys, one of whom was famously arrested by the police before our very eyes while in the middle of a game of rounders. Our favourite spot was the ‘broken brook’ where a group of us built a raft that looked good but was a miserable failure on the water. We laughed at our efforts to keep afloat on it before falling in brought events to an inevitably wet and muddy conclusion. Before I’m overcome with the joy of remembering, I should say that this was far removed from The Famous Five or literary accounts of feral middle-class fun that defined who you were forever, as in the filmic Stand by Me mode. There were no lashings of lemonade, no character-making incidents and no big adventures. Just a bunch of working-class kids with time on their hands. It was largely unspectacular but, in retrospect, not without its excitement and dangers. What parent today would let their children play unsupervised for hours by a river? And if they did what would they be called by the tabloid press? Other childhood memories recall a couple of family holidays spent with relatives in Ireland. Staying on farms in rural Mayo – the bit without electricity, gas or running water – us children could do whatever we liked from morning until night, free from the usual structures applied at home. We didn’t even have to wash. We could ride the pig, collect eggs, cut up peat and fetch water from the well all before breakfast. In contrast with what I observe of children in my circle of family and friends, I had a great deal of freedom and some responsibility for household chores and the care of younger siblings.