Thursday, 5 June 2014

My (non-)Childhood

I get told quite a lot that I didn't have a childhood. Usually what this means is that I didn't play Pokemon (a subject so touchy for me that it will get its own blog post, possibly next week) and I didn't watch [insert speaker's favourite children's cartoon here].

In fact, I watched relatively little TV as a child. I still don't watch very much, mostly documentary and topical comedy. My parents were quite suspicious of the TV as a source of things for children to do, and I still kinda agree with them, BUT I don't want this to turn into a 'kids these days' rant. I get really, really angry when I see people venerating 'old' ways of parenting, whether that's forcing children to play outside (it's cold and wet out there, alright?) or corporal punishment.

I actually think that the proliferation of internet access and video games are great for kids. The internet teaches skepticism and fact-checking at a far earlier age than traditional methods (there are serious psychological studies backing this up, though I can't lay hands on any off the top of my head), encourages literacy and technological expertise, and connects us to more people, from further outside our own cultural bubbles, than ever before. Video games are interactive in a way few other forms of media are, and are increasingly social too.

But that's at least two big debates, both for another time (I'm not saying there aren't problems with modern childhood). Here, I want to reflect a bit on the peculiar cultural isolation that comes from 'not having had a childhood'. After all, it's not like I actually had a deprived childhood - I made up for a lack of TV with books and books and books. Instead of crying over Bambi's mother (uh, spoiler alert? ;) ), I cried over the end of the Jungle Book (no, the actual book, which I highly recommend).

But it can be profoundly alienating to have no nostalgia for things so many of my friends love. I spent years listening to long conversations about how great Thundercats was, having no idea what anyone was on about, and was finally sat down by a friend and force-fed the first half-dozen episodes. Without nostalgia, and I'm sorry to break it to you like this, they were terrible. Clunky dialogue, stilted animation, cliched or non-existent characterisation and flat, formulaic plotting.

I had a similar experience with Scooby Doo. The Simpsons and South Park are prime offenders, too. I actually have a friend who recently became Dr. Nick, and I have no idea why this is funny (well, ok, I do now, but only because I googled it). Fortunately on that score, he's also Dr. Jones, and for better or worse that song was part of my childhood.

Would I trade the actual experiences that shaped me for better knowledge of pop culture? No, because that would be trading being me for being someone else, and there's not really any sense in the question 'Would you rather be not you?' And as the Dr. Nick example shows, it's much easier to get into the know than it would have been ten years ago.

But if/when I'm a parent, I'm sure I'll have to think long and hard about how much I want my children to be part of the culture that surrounds them. It doesn't happen so much to me anymore, but there were times when the exclusion I experienced brought me considerable pain, either purely from being left out of things or from being actively bullied for not knowing the difference between Scooby and Scrappy or whatever. My parents made good decisions for good reasons, but I'm not sure I'll be deciding the same way.


  1. HI Rik -read this story of lost childhood with some sadness, but refrained from commenting as basically I am not the commenting type. However your blog has been chewing away at me and presumably you post this stuff to initiate debate.. so here goes. Lost childhood.....could your really have this conversation with someone who grew up in Somalia lately? Did you have to spend many hours toiling on a reeking landfill site trying to reclaim enough plastic bottles to feed you family? Spend many nights crying with hunger and cold in a refugee camp? Been dragged into a dark corner by an old priest or DJ? Did you get home from school and find your parents in crack induced comas? Been sent out to pickpocket so your relatives can take the money and spend it on jewellery and gambling? Lost childhood? Get a grip. Happy birthday, by the way. Rick the other riff

  2. I think you're reading something into my post that I can't fairly be accused of having said. I'm hardly coming out in favour of the idea that I 'didn't have a childhood'. I never claimed to have had a lost childhood - in fact, I assert exactly the opposite (in the fourth paragraph, above) - and I also said I wouldn't trade the childhood I had for an alternative. This isn't, or wasn't intended to be, a pity piece, and I'd have written it very differently if it was.

    The phrase 'considerable pain' was carefully chosen - if I had thought that my experiences were on a par with the extreme and terrible examples you used, I would have used 'extreme' or 'terrible'. By 'considerable', I mean only that it was a major influence on my life subsequently; that it was probably the greatest source of unhappiness in *my* life. Has my life been, overall, unhappy? No, but it has certainly involved episodes of unhappiness, just as anyone's has. Subjective unhappiness is not proportional to objective suffering, and particularly where children and childhood are concerned, subjective unhappiness can have deep and lasting effects.

    I never claimed that my childhood was as terrible as those you described. But social exclusion is a huge source of pain for a huge number of children, one that is often overlooked by parents and adults in loco parentis. It was certainly overlooked by many of my teachers, for example. What I *wanted* people to take away from this is that this is an issue that needs to be taken more seriously than I feel it was.

  3. Well, that's me told ! Good response. Serves me right for attempting to raise a single folicle above the parapet. I always find your posts thoughtful. Rick.