Do we notice children properly? Do we value them not as transit passengers to adulthood, but as people with hopes and anxieties all their own? It was all so very different then; why do we turn away from the memory?
Take, for instance, the fear of getting lost.
Emerging recently from somebodyâ€™s front door I experienced a moment of intense confusion. Where was I? Of course, there was no need to panic, only chuckle, knowing as grown-ups do, how to deal with this. A few secondsâ€™ thought â€” a quick re-set with the GPS satellites of human memory â€” located me in place, time and context, and off I strode into the rest of my day. Iâ€™ve been lost before and will be lost again, and no harm comes.
Thatâ€™s how it is, for grown-ups. But do you remember how it is for a child? Nearly fifty years ago I watched my little brother, aged about nine, who had become separated from me in a crowd in a foreign port. The small boy had lost sight of me but I could see him. He was standing there among strangers, and weeping uncontrollably. He had perhaps never been completely lost before and his grief and anxiety were unbounded. What ever would he do? â€œChildhood,â€ writes George Eliot, â€œis soothed by no memories of outlived sorrow.â€
The fears of childhood. How vivid, how sharp it all was. If we laugh now it is because weâ€™ve forgotten the intensity. The fear of choking â€” fishbones; skin on custard. Fear of school and being bullied. Fear of playtime. The terror of adultsâ€™ anger. Car sickness, earache, toothache . . . I remember hallucinating when I had sand-fly fever and being scared out of my four-year-old wits. Or skeletons. Or the circular saw that was going to cut off the plaster cast from my arm â€” I lay awake at night worrying about that for weeks.
Half a century later I sat on a quango then called the Broadcasting Standards Council. East Midlands Electricity was running a TV advertising campaign featuring huge pylons stretching down cradling arms to help people. The concept was feelgood, but scores of parents had written in to say that this should be shown only after the watershed. It terrified their children.
All at once I remembered my childish fear (and those of most children) of inanimate objects that might come to life: forest trees turning their branches into cages to scoop up children. There was a tree on the cycle home from school that I hardly dared pass. Now Iâ€™m a man I know inanimate objects donâ€™t come to life, but can a child? How does a child know what â€œinanimateâ€ means? In childhood we are testing the very definition of that word.
â€œThose bitter sorrows of childhood!â€ wrote Eliot, â€œWhen sorrow is all new and strange, when hope has not yet got wings to fly beyond the days and weeks, and the space from summer to summer seems measureless.â€
This is how we were, and this is how it is for millions of children brushing every day against our lives, moving among us adults, experiencing the world in their way, knowing what they know; seen by us yet somehow not â€” their inner lives closed to us, discounted as â€œchildishâ€, â€œtemporaryâ€. Parents care, of course: fiercely, tenderly. But parentsâ€™ love is shot through with an idea of possession, of the child as a small, half-formed copy of themselves: a work in progress.
I know children donâ€™t see it like that because I remember. We were nobodyâ€™s project, nobodyâ€™s little replica. We had a strong sense of ourselves. We were foreground; adults were background. We knew our dependence, of course, but it chafed. We respected command, but not unfair command. When wronged we had a keen, even bitter sense of injustice, and no cynicism about worldly wickedness. I swore to myself (and I bet you did too) that when I grew up I would never disregard children, or be unfair or rude to children, in the way some grown-ups did. I had a recurring dream of rescuing other children.
Even a month was a very, very long time to me. Adulthood was impossibly distant. The here and now was life, and my friends and I were living it: not passing through a stage en route to a permanent adult state. Childhood was not a journey and adulthood was not a destination. No more than the middle-aged regard their state as a transition to senility would we children see our state as a transition to maturity. We were curious to learn, yes, but school was not a good place to learn, it was the wrong way to teach and a colossal waste of time.
I still think that. We adults argue endlessly about education, secretly (many of us) wishing a hearty good riddance to the memory of our own. Surveying the hundreds of great lives that my BBC radio series examines, it is impossible not to notice how many began with an â€œeducationâ€ that was dysfunctional, eccentric or non-existent.
Yes, we have a minister for children, and childrenâ€™s commissioners: a good thing too. But where is the voice of children themselves, unmediated? Why do we so rarely hear them talking not to us or through us, but directly to an audience of other children about the joys and sorrows of childhood? All the talking is up or down. What about across? The proportion of children in the population of our country is now the smallest in history and I am close to thinking (but you would jeer) that these kids need to mobilise. Students did.
If you were hoping for a series of policy conclusions I must disappoint you. I argue instead for an altered way of looking at childhood â€” perhaps rather more as we look at the elderly: respectfully, inquisitively; towards not supplicants or idiots, but fellow citizens with claims of their own on society.
Children have their own story and we should hear it more. Hereâ€™s Eliot again: â€œWe could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass.â€
I have been lisping to myself on the grass today, and Iâ€™m all of 65: but with thoughts that in the intervening years I have been unable to banish. They are not, perhaps, quite worthless.