Can we really compare two different childhoods — one lived 35 years ago in rural Scotland, and the other being lived today in a city in the south of England? I look back at my own childhood and teenage years and can’t help but think how lucky I was to have experienced such freedom and opportunity.
It was a bright, sunny and crisply cold Saturday afternoon, and I was pulling on hat and gloves to take the dog for a walk; I couldn’t wait to be out in the fresh air. My recently-become-teenage stepson, on the other hand, was lounging on the sofa trying to decide between watching a bit of telly or spending a couple of hours on the games console. Either way, he didn’t see any pressing need to get changed out of his pyjamas. I felt a familiar tug of frustration and sadness, and suggested in a moment of unlikely optimism that he might like to come out to the park with me: “No thanks, I’d rather stay in”, he replied. It was then that I uttered the immortal words: “When I was your age…”. And predictably, the response was just what I’d have done at that age: my stepson’s eyes rolled upwards then drifted back to the television screen, and I knew there was little point in continuing. But this is what I would have said, had I done so:
“When I was your age, I used to spend every minute of my free time outside — running around, climbing trees, riding horses. In the summer, we’d go swimming in the canal or, if we could cadge a lift, go up to the nearest sandy beach with a bag of sandwiches and a swimming costume stuffed in a rucksack. If the weather was really bad, we (my brother and I and his friends — I was a tomboy) would sit in my parents’ garage and pretend to be the bridge crew of the starship Enterprise, on the lookout for aliens approaching through the trees beyond our garden fence. And the amazing thing now, as I look back, is that we really believed we saw them — with great luminous eyes and waving tentacles — slithering towards us through the dusk-shrouded fields.
“When I was your age, weekends kicked off with a hastily-eaten breakfast and then out, and we knew to keep an ear open for lunchtime because the siren at the local psychiatric hospital (a long-stay institution for people with severe mental health problems) was tested at the same time every Saturday. We’d make our way back home for a bite to eat, and then straight back out again. Time away from school was too precious to be whiled away indoors.
“When I was your age, I used to explore the hills and fields around our town, looking for remains of the early settlers whose ruined cottages were abandoned during the Highland Clearances; I’d clamber over the fallen-down walls and sit on a pile of stones, imagining myself transported back in time, to sit invisibly among the inhabitants. I knew where to find the biggest and juiciest brambles for picking every autumn, and where to go on bitter winter days to find a bit of frozen boggy marsh to slide about on. I knew which of the local farmers would let us play on their land and which would shout at us for disturbing their livestock (or crops) — not that it really stopped us for long.
“When I was your age, I knew the home addresses of all the kids in my class at school, and they all lived within a half-hour’s walking distance of my house. I knew their older siblings’ and their parents’ names and what they did for a living, and I knew which people in the town had a bad reputation and should be avoided. Everyone went to the local comprehensive and most of us walked the mile or so to school every day.
“When I was your age, I used to spend long and contented hours on my own, riding one of the farmers’ Highland ponies for miles along the Forestry Commission roads that twisted through acres of planted fir trees, before turning down through one of the local housing areas and back along the canal bank to the farm road. I’d stop and talk to younger kids who wanted to pet and stroke the pony, and I’d feel important and knowledgeable and very grown-up.
“When I was your age, my brother and I and his friends used to have ‘gymnastics competitions’ to see who could climb a particular tree the quickest or do the greatest number of stunts — like hanging upside down off a branch ten feet in the air and counting how many pull-ups we could do before our stomach muscles gave out. Or we’d kick around a football in the field in front of the hydro-electric substation, using the high fence as our goalposts, and taking care not to kick it too high in case it went over — in which case we knew we’d be in trouble because we’d have to get a grown-up to go and retrieve it.
“When I was your age, there was no such thing as 24-hour television, home computers and the internet. There were no games consoles or DVD players, and the only time we came in contact with anything vaguely electronic was when our maths teacher at school used to dig out the massive ‘pocket’ calculators which — he’d delight in telling us — had more computer power in their tiny electronic brains than the Apollo moon mission capsules had, and look what they achieved!
“When I was your age, we hardly saw an adult from one hour to the next at weekends; adults were almost like a different species — they were there in the background, but they were separate, to be respected yes, but not anyone that we wanted to spend much of our precious spare time with. We were blessed with such freedom that you, my darling boy, can scarcely imagine — freedom to roam around to our hearts’ content; freedom to do what we wanted with our spare time (within reason) so long as we were home in time for dinner and didn’t do anything illegal or seriously harmful to ourselves (scuffed knees didn’t count); freedom to use our imagination to create worlds and peoples and lives with the fewest of props.
“I wish that you could have the freedoms that I enjoyed; I wish your school friends lived — as mine did — just down the road rather than scattered all over the city so that you could meet up with them more easily; I wish we as a society were less terrified of ‘stranger danger’ and would stop wrapping our kids in cotton wool, so that we — and tragically, you — feel that there’s too much risk in allowing you to explore your world unsupervised; I wish you were growing up with the opportunities I had to spend hours in the great outdoors, exercising your body and mind in the glorious fresh air through healthy play.
“I know — I do know — that I’m looking back at my own childhood through rose-tinted spectacles, and that it wasn’t always as good as I’m making out; yes, there were long rainy days when I was bored out of my mind, there was — quite literally — nothing on TV, and I couldn’t find a book I fancied reading. Bad things happened to kids back then too, and there was poverty and unemployment and we were far less well-off materially than we are today. But even so, I can’t help feeling that my childhood was so much richer for all those freedoms and opportunities, and I’m sad for you that you and your friends no longer seem to have them.”
With love, your stepmum.