Childhood and the bringing up of children have been back in the headlines in recent days, well stoked by press hysteria.
I expect that, like me, it has caused a few other people to reflect on their own childhoods and family life and how we, in turn, brought up our own children. For me the mug which proclaims, ” If I had known how much fun grandchildren were I’d have had them first ” rings very true.
When I was training to be a teacher Family and Kinship in East London was required reading. Although my childhood home was in what was then known as the Black Country and not the East End of London, so much was familiar.
A Black Country Childhood
I lived with my mother, father and sister. My paternal grandmother lived a street away. She shared a house with her sister and brother-in-law. There was a lot of coming and going between the households. There was not a house along the way where people were strangers and any of them would help or chide as appropriate.
If you fell over, you got picked up by an older child or an adult without any sinister motives. If I had ever done anything amiss, I knew news of it would have reached my mother before I got back home. Those who were bolder suffered wagged fingers, frowning faces and sharp words. End of story. No recriminations. No fears of abuse among the predominantly female neighbours and friends, who peopled our lives. It was the whole tribe rearing a child, about which Larry Brendtro taught us a few years ago.
I have memories of the winter of 1947; it was after all when I started school. I remember houses which only heated the living room and all life was lived around a big central table with hard wooden chairs to sit on. I remember patterns made by ice on the insides of windows, everywhere but in that room. I remember blazing fires and toast made by hanging slices of bread on a fork in front of them.
It was an orderly life, with every day having its set tasks. Monday was wash day, even it was snowing a blizzard or raining cats and dogs. Never mind thinking of waiting to see if it would be a good drying day the next day. The sky might have fallen in on my mother’s head if she had not kept to her self-imposed timetable. But, because of it, we were all fed and clean and never in debt, although, as one of my cousins pointed out to me recently, we were in fact poor.
She also commented about how we never really knew our fathers because they were usually out at work. She was right, although I do remember sitting at the table playing board games and doing jig-saw puzzles with my father, while we listened to the radio, our only source of entertainment apart from reading.
Being the bread-winner and running the household took the majority of my parents’ time and energy. No time for introspection, no day-time TV, no retail therapy, no nights with mates at the pub. Any extra-familial activities that there were also went according to the same orderly and predictable rhythms and were mostly linked to the local Methodist Chapel. The Mothers’ Meeting, the Chapel choir, the Sunday School Anniversary and the occasional coach trips absorbed and entertained us.
The Fractured Family
What, if anything, have these reflections taught me? First of all, I found out that it was much harder bringing up children without a large extended family. We never lived close to members of either of our families, so there were mostly only people of our own age around, having the same problems. No older and wiser people to steady and guide or support us. Looking back to Family and Kinship in East London we were experiencing what the Eastenders had also endured. The housing might be better, with more conveniences and labour-saving devices and warmth all over, but there was more pressure on relationships, because there was only the nuclear family within reach.
Being a slow learner I only realised when I had grandchildren that the house does not fall down if you don’t clean every room every week to a strict timetable. Going out when the weather is good is more sensible than cleaning floors. The time when children are young is too precious to waste waiting for the washing cycle to finish, or while the ironing gets done.
So, sorry to my sons. I could have done better with you, but at least the grandchildren have benefited from my experiences with you.
Lessons for the Future
Perhaps one of the more important lessons I have learned is that children flourish best with constant positive reinforcement. Smiling at children to express the sheer pleasure of being in their company. Saying, “Well done”, “That’s right”, “Good boy” (or girl), whenever possible is so important.
I sometimes find it hard to observe family life now. It is true there have been major developments, but not all change is progress. The younger generation have so much electronic equipment. So many can exclude themselves from social interaction with I-pods etc. So much time is spent alone in single bedrooms with TVs and computers. So many children have already either grown up in streets where nobody works, or in households where you wait for nothing with eager anticipation at Christmas or birthdays because if you want it you can afford to go out and get it.
A lot of schools used to be in large buildings which resembled factories and pupils were expected to be quietly obedient. They were being prepared for a lifetime of work which would involve going en-masse to large factories where they would be required to carry out mundane thoughtless jobs in a docile manner. True, a lot of the buildings have been replaced. Successive governments have given edicts about how and what children should be taught. But I have heard little of the purpose.
Has any thought been given to how best to rear and equip children for life in C21?
They will live in small family units, probably with one parent. Grandparents are likely to be distant figures if there is any contact at all. Aunts, uncles, cousins, kindly, ‘safe’ neighbours are no doubt in short supply. Everyone in a household is likely to live a solitary, rather selfish existence. Intercommunication is probably minimal.
What will the theorists tell us about how we ought help parents, carers and children in these conditions?
Young, Michael and Willmott, Peter (1957) Family and Kinship in East London
Routledge, Kegan and Paul
ISBN 13 978-0140205954