I’ve just finished reading a great book (The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat, if you’re interested) and part of the reason I enjoyed it was the fact that it was set in the early 1970s. The narrator was a year older than me and despite it being set in a small Australian town, a million miles from my own experience, her childhood really resonated with me. More than anything it highlighted the way the world has changed and got me thinking whether this was for the better or worse.
Like most things in life, there is no easy answer. Hopefully as human beings we have evolved as the world has become smaller through technology. Prejudice is no longer as widespread as it was and although racism and sexism do still exist it’s nowhere near as limiting as it was in the 70s. This in itself has to be a good thing but what about the other changes?
The most striking changes have taken place in the way we view our children. I am not a parent but work with young people who have been reared in a child-centred society. From birth they have been encouraged to believe that they are deserving of respect and validation regardless of their behaviour. There is no hint of children being seen but not heard or respecting their elders. In fact they are often quite shocked to discover that the world does not actually revolve around them.
It’s easy to point out the negatives of this kind of child-rearing. We have lots of young people who are not very resilient. The world is a tough place, perhaps more than ever before, and yet children are fed the idea that they can achieve anything they want to achieve. In an ideal world this might be true and hard work would pay off but in reality life is not necessarily fair. Big dreams are all well and good but you are never going to be a doctor or vet if you aren’t academically inclined nor are you going to be a successful singer even if you can carry a tune and have been in a couple of school shows. Why then do we constantly peddle the myth that children can be whoever they want to be and then wonder why they grow up into disappointed, unemployable adults? Shouldn’t we all be questioning why lots of big businesses would rather employ pensioners than young people?
I’m not viewing the 70s through rose tinted glasses, however. I grew up in a world where children were kept firmly in their place. We were told in no uncertain terms that we were not on equal footing with adults who warranted our respect for no other reason than good manners. We didn’t join in adult conversations, we gave up our seats if an adult was standing and we never questioned authority. Basically we were encouraged to be passive and accepting. Assertiveness is something that most of us have had to learn in adulthood and it’s often a steep learning curve.
Young people today tend to have a positive body image despite the statistics telling us that obesity is on the increase. In contrast I remember greed being viewed as something to be ashamed of and nobody beat around the bush where weight gain was concerned. I had a friend whose mother made her wear a panty girdle throughout her early teens due to her “running to fat.” There was no letting it all hang out and acceptance, being fat was undesirable and showed a weakness of character. We may have kept our weight in check and been less of a drain on the NHS but it can’t be a coincidence that every woman I know who is of my generation has a neurotic, unhealthy relationship with food. Is this any less damaging than the new eat all you can, junk food generation?
A notable positive change that I’ve seen is the way that young people have embraced inclusiveness. I often feel ashamed as I’m choking back laughter watching singers who can’t sing or dancers who can’t dance whilst young people encourage and support each other. We are all told that bullying is on the increase especially online but in my experience young people are kinder than I remember. Kids were brutal when I was at school and if you lacked skill there was no giving it your best shot, you were roundly mocked. I was beyond useless at PE and consequently never got picked for any teams; even my own friends viewed me as a handicap. To this day the idea of team games fill me with horror as I think back to shivering on the school field as the sporty girls deliberated who would be the least damaging to their success – an obese girl called Lesley, Nicola a chronic asthmatic or me.
I don’t suppose it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that our modern child-centric society is probably a direct result of the confidence crippling childhood of the 70s. Most of my friends who like me had to cope with low self-esteem and people pleasing disorders swore their own children would not be subject to the harsh child-rearing they endured. And as often happens they over compensated with their own offspring to try and rectify what happened to them. Consequently we are seeing different but just as damaging results from their own efforts.
Is there ever going to be an ideal childhood then? My own parents would scoff at my assertions that they were too strict as they recalled being given the belt and having to go out to work at fourteen. I suppose in comparison we seemed spoilt and pathetic. Their criticisms were just as limiting though as their own parents’ discipline had been to them and later generations may have chosen a more liberal approach but succeeded only in unleashing a whole set of new problems on their progeny. Maybe growing up should just come with a government health warning.