Childhood is a concept that has intrigued researchers for many years. There have been historical accounts which trace the evolution of childhood through the centuries. There have been some interesting cultural comparisons written.
I would like to begin the ‘Children Webmag – recollection and understanding of childhood’. If any readers wish to contribute, just email your musings to me to [email protected] and I will include them in the next and subsequent editions.
I am going to set the ball rolling by pondering what childhood is. It appears to evolve and change shape as lifestyles change and adult expectations alter. In my childhood, I was expected to be a child – the opposite of grown-up. I understood this to mean I shouldn’t have any worries; I shouldn’t have to work; life would be happy and trouble-free. My childhood was a mixture of happiness, wonder and not a little angst. I was a child who worried. I was the sort of child who could spend sleepless nights thinking about what would happen if…and whatever adults like to think or hope, children worry.
Safe and secure lives
Childhood is supposed to be a secure time, where real bonding can develop between parent and offspring. Mine was disrupted by hospitalisation at the age of three to have my tonsils removed, a fairly common practice at that time. My parents were not allowed to visit me for the seven or eight days I was in hospital, and I still have very vivid memories of what I saw and how I felt.
On my return home, I became a very insecure and distressed child who never fully recovered from being abandoned without explanation by loving parents who felt they were doing their best for me. As a result of what was for me a traumatic experience, I continued to be terrified that every night, when I went to bed, my parents were replaced by aliens.
I used to listen outside of their bedroom door most nights knowing that I was not allowed to disturb them, but needing to reassure myself that they were still the people who loved me. I would make many excuses to go downstairs to make sure they were still there. I finally outgrew this debilitating behaviour in my teens when other worries took over – boys, hair etc.
I have since discovered that I must have been suffering from Capgras Syndrome. It doesn’t appear to be treatable, so even if my parents had taken me for help, there would have been nothing that could have been done. What they did was accept that this was me. They didn’t attempt to reassure me, nor did they chastise me. I worked through it eventually.
Every Child Matters : what they need
When we take stock of what childhood offers nowadays, we can understand the significance of the Five Outcomes for Children acknowledged in the Every Child Matters agenda. (See previous articles).
Children from all backgrounds wish to feel safe and secure. They need to know that they are protected. They need to feel that they are loved. All children wish for health and its accompanying positive glow.
How many of the children in our society suffer from malnutrition or malaise brought about by inactive lives? I watch my two year old grandchild working as she moves round the house carrying toys to another room or picking up crumbs which must be cleared or pushing the doll pram. She is hardly ever still except when she is deep into sleep.
Piaget was very clear that for children, play is work and she works very hard. Watching her favourite programme The Night Garden, is an interactive event. She jumps, dances, waves and listens. Some children do not ever have this opportunity.
Ready to be a parent?
Some families are ill-prepared for children and even less ready for the responsibilities they bring with them. Poor parenting doesn’t begin with this generation. It is something that has occurred over successive generations and from different perspectives. Relocation, poverty, addiction, debt and isolation are all contributory factors though it cannot necessarily be predicted that they will lead to any specific consequence.
What we see are parents in defeat. They have little hope; there is no optimism. They are the product of the ‘You can be what you want to be, do what you want to do’ attitude. This statement in itself is true – if there is dedication, hard work and gradual developing of skills and knowledge.
That is where the problems began. No one had informed those youngsters that they needed to work to achieve success and so their dreams of becoming famous while doing nothing are beginning to recede.
On the other hand, today’s childhood among the middle classes may involve fitting in as many events as possible: tumble tots, parent and toddler groups, nurseries, play groups, socialisation groups, Brownies, Beavers, Cubs, gymnastics, additional language classes, music lessons, even cramming for their future. These children are more likely to suffer from burn-out rather than anything else.
Most children from any economic level now acquire computer games and Wii which have extended the time that they can now be left alone in their virtual world. It reduces opportunities to play with and interact face to face with friends to the point where they only ever meet at school.
Alongside this, the majority of parents now are fearful of what is waiting for their children outside the home. Are there child kidnappers on every corner? Will their child fall off a piece of playground equipment and be maimed for life?
Most of these concerns are unfounded and debilitating for parents and more especially for their children. I heard a radio debate on the subject of parents leaving their children in the car whilst rushing into a shop or collecting another child. Most of us would feel justifiable concern if a child is left for any great length of time. Those who objected to even leaving a child for a short time expressed concern that:
- the child might get stolen,
- the car might catch fire,
- the child would be murdered.
Realistically, it is unlikely that any of these will happen. It does, however, highlight the panic and blind terror that haunts some people and where these people are parents, their children’s lives will be very restricted and unbalanced.
Preparation for adulthood usually comes through role play. Childhood prepares children for adulthood by allowing them to observe and learn about adult behaviour and reactions. It will be interesting and somewhat frightening to see how this generation provides the next role models for their own offspring.