I’ve just watched The Supersizers Go… 70s; and recently the BBC Four Childhood season and most recent series of Child of Our Time, and I also went to visit the National Trust Museum of Childhood a couple of weeks ago. I was also reminiscing with my cousin this week and discussing how we both recall growing up strongly, but our brothers don’t – I’d forgive Gaz forgetting much of the 80s (he was born mid 85) but he can’t even remember half the 90s! Adam also can’t remember the 80s, and he was born in 82 so that’s just weird.
Anyway, I think all of these things have made me realise just how different things are from when I was a kid. Until now, nostalgic reminiscing has been fun; after all I was still young, no? I was only a few years older than the kids of today. Except… I’m not that young anymore, and my childhood was a long time ago. I am the age my mum was when she used to reminisce to us about her childhood. I remember when she turned 30 that she was SO OLD. But now my friendship group have begun the two year onslaught of 30th birthdays, and childhood was a good twenty-plus years ago.
When I was in my mid-teens, we’d go to museums and occasionally I’d see stuff from the 80s and early 90s in there and think it was cool/funny that recent stuff was in there. Now that stuff does actually look old – our generation’s toys like the pully dog on a string, Sindy’s mustard and brown bathroom suite, the Fisher Price roll-y music thing and so on were all in the museum of childhood, and are so obviously from a different century to the likes of ‘my first laptop’ and the LeapPad thing that the kids of today have. When I was four, playing that light up music thingy (SIMON? We never had one, Michael and Elisabeth did though) was cutting edge. My friends’ four year old can surf YouTube for jellyfish videos.
But yeah, I think we all know culture and technology have advanced a lot in thirty years, so that bit is less surprising.
Food, though, I hadn’t realised how much that had changed til I thought about it. The Supersizers show had staples of the 70s (which carried on into the 80s): SodaStream (too posh for us, but our cousins had one – oooh, the envy), Angel Delight, plus all the manufactured things I refused to eat (Smash, Crispy Pancakes, boil-in-the-bag etc). To be fair, my diet wasn’t that bad in the 80s, but only because I refused to eat anything except raw vegetables (which consisted of lettuce, carrot, celery, radishes and mushroom generally. Occasionally peppers, incresingly so as the 80s turned into the 90s and more foodstuffs became available more often), nuts, seeds, chips, a specific brand of cheese and Heinz Noodle Doodles.
Now we still have instant food, but it’s at least marginally more nutritious, plus we have cusine from all over the world, and much fresher food. We always had a chinese near us, but I don’t remember eating pasta (save Heinz Noodle Doodles) before the 90s, and the mid-90s at that; and the only Indian food I remember from childhood was Vesta packet curries. I remember the first MacDonald’s opening in Grimsby in the mid-80s, when fries only came in two sizes and the only drinks were milkshakes, cola, rootbeer and flat orange. And when going was a very rare treat indeed, and the toys they gave you were flourescent yellow frisbees. Anyway, there are a million and one food memories I could think of, but no-one would dream of giving their kids the current baby staple of organic pureed butternut squash in those days.
But the thing that was most different was the freedoms children have. The children in Child of Our Time are twenty years younger than I am. They did a survey of their lifestyles and habits and compared them to twenty years ago (i.e. when I was their age). In 1988, 90% of children walked to school, now it’s something like 10%. In 1988, children played out and were allowed to wander for a mile or two. People talk about children having dedicated TV, DVDs and computers now that keep them indoors, but we had (and watched) children’s telly, and cool toys, and some even had computers (I think our nostalgia for the Amstrad and Spectrum is what has kept Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar in the public affections for so long. The success of The Apprentice is totally down to playing Oh Mummy and Animal, Vegetable, Mineral on a green monitor in the late 80s/early 90s, I’m sure of it.) It was hardly a million years ago.
Nowadays children are only allowed to play as far as their street. Parents are cautious, but of course there is no more risk of ‘stranger danger’ than there was when we were young (I still remember the Sarah Harper murder in the mid-late 80s being big news), or even when our parents were young (in fact the greatest risk from paedophiles is probably online, sort of ironic seeing as they spend a lot of time on computers instead of playing out).
Almost none of the children did things like going to the shops by themselves. When I was their age, I had been going to the shops for a couple of years, I had my own house key, I used to walk a mile to and from school (across busy roads) sometimes by myself, though usually with friends. And that was fairly normal. (I couldn’t wash my own hair though)
There is one very real risk to children that has developed in the last 20 years, and that’s the prevalance of the car – which is a bit of a self-perpetuating cycle: children don’t walk because cars are a danger, but cars become more of a danger because there are more of them, because children don’t walk. 20 years ago most kids I know lived in households without cars, and those whose parents had cars only had one, and that was used by the person (well, the dad, let’s be honest) who went to work.
The thing that shocked me most was that I would have imagined the difference between my mum’s generation and today’s children would be huge: I didn’t imagine the difference between my generation and the generation of those who-could-be-my-children would be so big; so much bigger, in fact, than the difference between my childhood and my mum’s. Weird. But I bet we still don’t have flying cars in 10 years’ time.