Whose childhood? By Dr. Keith White

Those who are familiar with Mill Grove through the columns I have written for the Webmag/TCJ over the years will know that late summer is the time when our extended family always heads for North Wales.  To such it will therefore come as no surprise that this piece has been prompted by a recent visit to Snowdonia.

Ruth and I were with a family of five: mother, father and three pre-school age children.  Unusually both the father and mother had lived at Mill Grove during their respective childhoods.  (This is unusual because we live as a family and so liaisons within the family are actively discouraged.)  Both the parents had been with us to North Wales when they were children, but this was the first time that the mother had been back for something like fifteen years, and the father for the best part of ten.

Now they were returning to the place that held so many treasured memories for each for them, but, and this is the crucial point, this time they came with their children.  The children were in North Wales for the very first time.  As we explored the local area together (the Welsh Highland Railway; Portmeirion; the Rabbit Farm in Llanystumdwy; Black Rock Sands; Criccieth; the beaches of Borth-y-Gest; and the estuary that leads into Cardigan Bay) I had the privilege of witnessing these two adults and three children responding individually and together to this remarkable natural “adventure playground”.

The children reacted much as I have come to expect from forty years’ of experience with others of a similar age in the same environment.  They were attracted to that which was near and immediate.  The youngest one was happy to sit on the sand, to hold it in her hands and to eat it; she found the water mesmerising, and left me wondering yet again about that great mystery of what it all seemed to be and meant to her, and what would lodge in her memory far beyond the recall of images and words in the years to come.

The other two soon came to realise that there was a little village park virtually in our back garden and so repaired there as often as possible.  On one occasion they spotted a rabbit, and so the park and rabbit seemed to be integral to the whole experience of the swings, slide and see-saw.  On the beach they made and flattened sand-castles, quickly learning that dry sand was not as appropriate for the process as they had at first thought.  They saw or imagined jelly-fish and crabs everywhere, and feared that they would be mortally wounded if they came into contact with either.

Walking to the sea across the beach they noticed the worm-like shapes in the sand caused by lug-worms, but did not seem particularly interested in digging deep enough to find one.  They were attracted to making footprints, and enjoyed identifying our shadows as we walked hand in hand.  They quickly adapted to walking on footpaths and were soon identifying wild flowers, first by colour and then some (including cranesbill) by name.

On the rocks they showed expected natural ability to scramble without fear, using raw energy and innate techniques to scale some modest climbs.  At the top of hills the views seemed to mean little or nothing to them (as I had come to expect from the reactions of other young children). Shrimping was popular and they were fascinated by the bucket-full of fish, shrimps and little crabs. When we barbecued they happily gathered driftwood, and were respectful of the fire as it quickly became too hot for close encounters.

They threw sand, stones and rocks, but before long began to realise that sand is never thrown, and that stones and rocks need to be thrown with care in appropriate directions and contexts.

On the Mirror dinghy the oldest of the three (a boy) took his responsibilities as a crew member very seriously, and he was relaxed in both calm and fresh conditions.  On the second sail he responded enthusiastically with “Aye, aye, skipper!” whenever he heard the call “Ready about”.  He positively enjoyed riding over waves.  And he took responsibility for holding the dinghy by a line when I needed to deposit the trailer in the boat-park.

I think that is probably enough to give you the picture.  (Bear in mind that I love the area and every part of the whole experience, and that as I do not possess a mobile phone I am able to be “present” in ways that many modern parents find difficult due to electronic social networking.)

If you noticed the title of this piece you will be wondering about the parents.  How was it for them?  It was evidently very exciting for them to revisit childhood haunts, and they began by noticing the things that had changed.  There was a new fence around the playground; the path to the beach now had a large wooden bridge because the dunes had eroded.  The beach was very much as they remembered it, and they insisted that we sat by the very rock which was the base for the family every year. But then there came the urge to enjoy the experiences that had meant so much for them.

And they so wanted to share them with their children that there was a constant tendency to interrupt what the children were doing in order to introduce them to new activities.  So sand-castling was suddenly terminated in order to take one of the children for a roll down the dunes at the end of the beach.  A similar thing happened with shrimping: it had to be done, and shrimps had to be found irrespective of what the children were doing or thinking at the time.

And this pattern obtained each day, and in different places.  So at the rabbit farm the adults eagerly handled and passed on creatures from rabbits, to puppies and guinea-pigs so that often the children did not have the time or opportunity to choose for themselves.  The culmination of this came with the pony rides.  Each of the older children were led in turn around a little field equipped with a riding hat.

The parents (particularly the mother) didn’t want the children to miss out on anything that had been special for them.  And this meant a constant interruption of the activities and focus of the children’s attention.

This is what led me to wonder whose childhood is dominant on family holidays: that of the parents or that of the children.  The parents usually choose the venues and the activities for very young children.  And these are obviously determinative of much that the children experience.  But how much do parents mediate what goes on through the prism or lens of their own childhoods?  And who is the child at any given time when rolling down sand dunes, making sand-castles and shrimping?

It is not easy to get an appropriate balance between these two childhoods, the remembered childhoods of the parents and the current childhoods of their offspring.  It is therefore not easy to make the right space for the actual children.  I recalled the time when I had introduced my own children to special a special holiday venue in my early life.  It was the beach at Lowestoft where I had enjoyed some of the very best childhood holidays.  My offspring were completely underwhelmed as they stood on the promenade overlooking the beach and groynes.  Compared to the glories of North Wales I can now see why Lowestoft seems rather limited to them.

Our childhood experiences obviously affect the whole of our lives and our parenting, but in familiar holiday haunts there may be a lot more going on than usual.  We want the very best for our children, and what we believe to be the very best in these particular locations is going to be determined largely by what we experienced.  If much of the rest of a person’s childhood at home and school was traumatic, disturbed and anxiety-provoking, then the comparative safety and joys of holidays will be correspondingly attractive and valued.

I wonder if you have guessed a possible way of helping address this conundrum.  Grandparents may well be able to mediate between parents and their children.  Of course grandparents are not neutral observers in all this. We have our own preferences and memories, but there is no longer the urgency or pressure to channel the young children’s activities and experiences into those that we preferred…with the possible exception in my case of sailing, climbing, swimming, barbecues and beach games!