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Home > Culture and Society

Lost Childhood: Are We Kidding Ourselves?

17 September 2006

When something gets their goat, the great and the good have a tendency to write portentous letters to national newspapers, like Harold Pinter and his stern criticisms of US foreign policy in The Guardian, but there's something rather futile about it. It's probably because the imbalance of power is so great - it's reminiscent of the way student unions will pass motions like: 'We demand the withdrawal of all US troops from all non-US soil and the closure of all overseas military bases,' as though Karl Rove is going to charge into the Oval Office saying 'Sir! We have to pull out of Iraq! We've been censured by Oxford Brookes University!'

However, this didn't stop various academics and authors sending a letter to The Telegraph arguing that kids are missing out on their childhoods, with their creativity and childish *joie de vivre* being stifled by advertising, educational targets, junk food and other facets of modern life. The signatories, who included authors Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson, and scientist Baroness Greenfield, also highlighted 'the escalating incidence of childhood depression'.

Although the letter is well-intentioned and raises some serious points, there are a few problems. The first is that if you're going to rail against modern life, it's worth being sure that things really were so different in the past.

Advertisers have always targeted children, whether trying to sell them X-Ray specs, comics or Action Men, and it's hard to see what point is being made here. It's obviously not good that children should be fixated with owning the right trainers or whatever, but peer pressure to conform has always left kids wanting things, something that has always been a headache for parents, but something they've have had to deal with. (The good news is that there are no recorded cases of a child dying because they didn't have the right trainers or weren't allowed to get their ears pierced.)

As for junk food, it's become the bogeyman of modern times. If you eat it in excess, it definitely isn't good for you, but isn't this a matter of parents, again, taking control of what kids do? And it does rather assume that before McDonald's took over our high streets, kids were eating a balanced, healthy diet. They weren't. Frozen food has been a staple of the British diet ever since freezers became affordable. Indeed, whole generations grew up thinking McCain's was what pizza should be like: a chewy, three-quarter-inch thick disc of dough with watery chunks of tomato and a thin sprinkling of cheddar cheese. (Served, of course, with chips and baked beans. Ah, la dolce vita!)

The letter also makes the mistake of conflating serious issues with essentially trivial ones. Childhood depression is most likely to be connected to tangible problems in kids' home lives. It's a rather different issue to advertisers targeting kids or junk food. Likewise the (over) use of targets in school is a distinct educational issue, but the authors are suggesting that all these disparate things are part of a general malaise in children's lives. In reality, what sort of childhood you have is probably less about the era in which you were brought up, and more about how functional/dysfunctional your family is, and how rich/poor you are.

But above all, the letter smacks of trying to return to a past that never existed, which is always going to pose problems (although that's never stopped The Daily Mail trying). There's a definite subtext of longing for a more *authentic* childhood, but it's hard to see how that could be achieved. Perhaps the government should provide a 'Childhood for Children' pack to all under-12s, containing:

- Instructions on how to climb trees

- A small faithful dog

- One detachable rope swing

- A map of apple trees for scrumping

- A sterilised stalk of grass (for chewin', Huck Finn-style)

- Jumpers (for goalposts)

- Make-up to ensure ruddy cheeks

- Lashings of ginger beer

It's easy to mock, but there really is little point in equating a vague desire to 'go back to the way things were' with more serious childhood issues. And as for recreating the past, surely the whole appeal of 'Swallows and Amazons' or 'The Famous Five', both of which contained highly idealised childhoods, was that they were pure escapism for the majority of us who had distinctly average childhoods. You know, the sort that involved McCain's pizza, Goblin's meat puddings, hanging around aimlessly on the swings and absolutely bugger all else.

Ah, those were the days.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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