Childhood, we are told, is an all-too-fleeting age, to be savoured by all involved. To parents facing the long school holidays, that injunction may ring hollow, and the very state of childhood itself is said by many to be in terminal decay. But while few would deny that parenting can be harder these days, children in Britain have surely never had it so good.
Much of the improvement in understanding - and hence in the quality of life - for children in the post-war period is due to the work of the psychiatrist Dr John Bowlby. During the 1950s he established a scientific basis for proving that infants are born with strong attachment needs to significant persons in their daily lives. If these needs are thwarted, particularly during the early years, infants can suffer a great deal and sometimes take this suffering into their adulthood. The effect of this discovery is still sending shock waves through British concepts of parenting. It means that unless they are royalty, who still follow a basically 18th-century concept of aristocratic parenting, mothers and fathers can't now simply dump their small children with whoever might be around and clear off for a guilt-free holiday.
After Bowlby, sending children to boarding schools also no longer always seemed in their best interests. When this still happens, weekend home visits are now the norm rather than the exception. Bowlby also had an influence on the practice of placing infants taken into care with families, rather than in the gaunt institutions that existed not so long ago. Cruelty to children still exists, of course, but the unthinking neglect once sometimes visited upon their young by otherwise well-meaning absentee parents who did not know any better should now largely be a thing of the past. And while Bowlby has unquestionably made life harder for parents by establishing what their true responsibilities are, and would probably have scuppered the mass evacuation of children during the last war had he done his research 10 years earlier, he remains a true hero for the young. He can also be credited with seeing off those bleak children's hospitals where parental visits were never encouraged, Bowlby fully deserves a statue alongside other child welfare giants such as Thomas Coram, Lord Shaftesbury and the pioneer of nursery education, Margaret McMillan.
At home, other improvements exist of a different kind. Today's infant enjoys a selection of delicious baby foods unknown to previous generations brought up on boring, milk-based diets. He or she is also no longer shoved to the end of the garden in a pram to lie for hours every day in urine-soaked terry-cloth nappies that often left painful rashes. Clothes are lighter and less fiddly, and washing machines make the inevitable spilling of food and drinks easier to live with. Homes are warmer, with once common chilblains a comparative rarity. Childhood epidemic diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria and polio are largely in abeyance or eradicated. Open-air schools, once set up all over Britain for delicate children, have either been pulled down or given a new brief.
A three-year-old's current right to 15 hours of free nursery provision each week is another massive step forward for infants. It ensures that they will all eventually go to a pleasant establishment run by kindly adults. Play will be the order of the day, using a wide range of toys and activities. Big school, when it starts, should be equally agreeable. Those cane-wielding dominies of yore that still occasionally crop up even in recent autobiographies are, thankfully, no longer around. Lessons are more child-centred, with encouragement replacing public shaming as the best means of learning.
Out in the playground, some bullying still exists, but at least modern schools are required to devise policies for coping with it. The "sink or swim" philosophy whereby pupils were left to sort themselves out into hierarchies, the strong inevitably taking advantage of the weak, has few supporters now. At an individual level, pupils with protruding teeth or ears of the type that once led to malicious teasing can now have such features rectified, courtesy of the National Health Service. Those children that remain irredeemably fat, short, clumsy or plain may still sometimes have a hard time, but save perhaps within the stories of Roald Dahl there is no longer any adult sanction for casual cruelty from others. We do, by and large, live in a kinder age now.
Going up through the school system, girls today receive equal encouragement to succeed and pupils whose skin is not white no longer have to put up with racial abuse as a daily norm. Comprehensive education continues to offer a range of opportunities unimaginable to those who once attended their local secondary moderns years ago. After-school clubs are also thriving. Disabled pupils too get an infinitely better deal; a far cry from the time when being different meant having to put up with so many other avoidable hardships. Poor children, often formerly written off at school, now receive much more encouragement as well as financial help for staying on after the school-leaving age.
In the home, many children seem closer to their parents, sharing their fashions, food, music and culture as never before. Remote and authoritarian fathers are now often transformed into people who cook, wash up and watch television with the family. Rules about bedtime, once a perennial source of conflict between the generations, are more relaxed. At its worst, this can lead to children going to school suffering from sleep deprivation. In more benign circumstances, it means that young people no longer have to spend sleepless hours in bed because their parents want them out of the way.
At table, children now often eat on their own, but at least they will no longer be forced to consume food they can't bear. Tears over uneaten meat from young would-be vegetarians or undrunk milk from those with an allergy to dairy products are things of the past. Unflattering clothing thought to be socially suicidal, another set piece source of inter-generational tension from the past, is hardly an issue now that there is so much more choice in the shops and more spending money at home. Unattractive haircuts, once the visible sign of adult control over the young, have been replaced by individual experiment, artifice and imagination.
Dirt and smell, formerly the badges of extreme poverty and another cause for social ostracism at school, can be more easily avoided now all homes have running water. Many of the toys or consumer articles that some children once longed for but may never have possessed have also become more accessible. Any child really wanting a bike, for example, can now pick up a good second-hand one for a small price. Money, too, is easier to come by for older children taking once coveted but now readily available part-time work in shops or doing a paper-round. Holidays abroad are also cheaper, providing better value to the many families that can afford them than was normally offered by the British seaside.
Modern children may still be too embarrassed to talk about sex with their parents, but they can now find out most of what they need to at school or from books and magazines. The sexual doubts and fears that once routinely plagued the young equipped only with guilty half-knowledge have therefore become less of an issue. Sexual abuse, once almost impossible to talk about, has also come out of the shadows. ChildLine offers a 24-hour service to abused children; many don't use it, but numbers of them do. Those helpers they get through to are sympathetic and understanding; a far cry from the almost universal disbelief that used to greet child whistle-blowers, particularly when priests, schoolteachers or respected members of the family were concerned. Religion-inspired nightmares about eternal punishment and hellfire of the type that once haunted the young James Joyce and many others have been laughed nearly out of existence.
But while it is easy to make a case for childhood having improved in the past 50 years, whether it has got much better in the past 20 or so is harder to argue. Yet parents looking back on their own childhood, maybe spent in a settled community, can be misled by nostalgia for a world that is not obviously much better than the one we live in now. Such communities may be in decline, but at their peak many within them found them oppressive rather than merely cosy. Today's reports of vandalism and urban violence, often associated with community breakdown, are certainly nasty but not exactly new. Laurie Lee's otherwise idyllic autobiographical Cider with Rosie contains some particularly unpleasant examples of both, usually forgotten as readers wallow in his descriptions of an idealised pre-war Cotswold countryside.
Obesity coupled with lack of exercise is a growing childhood phenomenon, but whether parents could ever go back to a time when children were either encouraged or else forced to spend the whole day dashing about playing games away from home is another matter. Too many young couch potatoes absorbed in computer screens certainly exist, but then so did numbers of bookworms in pre-televisual days. Increased marital failure puts a strain on children, but so did those unhappy marriages of old that survived whatever the cost.
But on the whole, hard-pressed parents this summer should occasionally remind themselves and - if they dare, their children too - that the young today are having a better time overall than was often the case before. It is true that drug and alcohol abuse and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases at an early age seem to have got worse over the years, and it is difficult to draw much comfort from current attempts to tackle these problems. Childhood depression is also now a serious issue, though government-backed initiatives such as so-called "happiness" lessons could well help pupils in the future, by giving them an idea of how best to cope with extreme negative feelings. Yet for the many reasonably cheerful children that still exist, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, their lives by any standards mostly seem pretty good. Happy holidays!
Nicholas Tucker is Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies, University of SussexReuse content