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The Invention of Childhood - The making of childhood

Updated Friday, 15th September 2006

How did your childhood differ from that of your parents, or grandparents? Read about the thinking and inspiration behind the series in an article the making of childhood by radio producer, Beaty Rubens.

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When it comes to history, the kind I like tends to be attached to one of these words: 'hidden', 'domestic', 'family', 'secret', 'personal', 'lost'… The bigger political, military or social matrix interests me up to a point, but what I always find myself wondering about is how these major events touched the ordinary lives of ordinary people, or rather, the extraordinary lives of the extraordinary people who were the you and me of the past.

Childhood and how it has changed down the centuries is always on my mind because I have a six-year-old daughter and, like all parents, I shuttle between the feeling that nobody has ever been a parent before - that I am blazing a trail (absurd, I know…) and, on the other hand, that I’m treading in the footprints of parents since time began, and that she is treading in the footprints of children.

And I start wondering how my daughter’s childhood in the early 21st century compares with mine in the 1960s. Then I move onto my mother’s in the 1920s or my grandfather’s in the 19th century. What have they had in common and how have they been totally different? I think of the major world events which have had an impact on each of those childhoods: the First World War, the Second World War, the Atom Bomb, the 'Swinging Sixties', 9/11… and I think also of the more personal, family ingredients which make up a childhood: my grandfather - the son of Jewish immigrants who spoke, all their lives, with thick foreign accents, my mother - a war-time evacuee, myself - one of six children, and my daughter who is a 'precious only'.

And then I discovered that nobody had ever attempted a chronological history of British childhood before - and I was really hooked.

It was only quite recently (in that slightly too last-minute way which is part of all creative processes), when Michael Morpurgo and I were working on episode 30 (episode 30, mind, - the very final programme!), that we felt we might be approaching some overview about the similarities and differences down the ages. It’s a fascinating, simple thing, which is - ultimately - the message of the entire series.

We’d been trying to find some really revealing extracts about childhood by contemporary children, and Michael had brought along this passage to our meeting. It’s called Playing Dentists. It appears in the final episode but listeners, of course, won’t have the pleasure of its punctuation and spelling:

The night before I went to the dentists, my sister and I were playing at dentists. She stamped on the floor that made the chair go up. She then switched on a lite. She used a pair of pliers out of my tool set for the pinchers. She used my bobble hat for a gas mask. She used a puddin dish for the thing you spit your blud into. She used a poker for the drill and a glass of water for the mouth wash. She tied me to the chair with some thick string and tied a hanky round my neck. She got a lolly stick and prest my tong back to see which tooth to pull out. She put a bit of rock in my mouth to keep it open and put my bobble hat on me. She took it off and got the pair of pliars and pretended to pull out my tooth. She took a look at it and then gave me the water and I pretended to wash out my mouth. She untied the hanky, but she didn't untie me from the chair. She hit me about ten times and then ran off. I shouted mum to come and untie me. After that next time we play shes defenetly going to be the patient.

We loved it and we laughed and laughed. But then we began to talk about why we loved it and here’s what we concluded: as a description of children playing (taking out a few details), it could come from any century: it’s packed full of the creativity, the imaginative play, the inventiveness, the daftness, and the anarchy that make children, children.

In other words, we began to see that, left to their own devices, children are and have always been pretty much the same, down the ages (it’s my guess they always will be too). Even the biological milestones children mark as they grow are pretty much unchanged. But childhood is a different matter entirely.

It’s actually adults and the world of adults which guide and govern the world of the child, much of the time, and this is why CHILDHOOD is an ever-changing thing - though some of the changes come round again and again. And it’s these changes across the centuries that provide the main storyline for our series. Constantly we try to find first-person evidence of what it was actually like to live life as a child at the time of, say, the invention of printing, the coming of the Puritans, or the Industrial Revolution to bring alive the individual lives of children within that bigger sweep of history.

And who’s it for? I hope it will appeal to parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, psychologists, amateur historians such as the thousands who are tracing their own family histories, politicians, social workers, child-minders, doctors, nurses, …and, of course, anyone who has ever been a child themselves.

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