Comparing two childhoods - Has parenting changed since the 1970s?

AUGUST 1971. Jim Morrison has just died, Chay Blyth is completing his round-the-world voyage (the wrong way) and the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is showing at the local cinema.

Less notable on the world stage, but an important milestone none the less in the lives of Mr and Mrs Walker, is the first day at school for their five-year-old twins.

We eat breakfast together – Rice Krispies as usual – at the kitchen table while Dad listens to the news on the radio. Then, dressed proudly in grey pinafore, knee-high white socks and red Start-Rites on my chubby feet, I skip off for my first day at school, eager charge of the beehived Mrs Cluness.

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The outfit is completed by a too-big blazer ("don't worry – you'll grow into it," declares Mum confidently, though the elbows will need patched long before my wrists emerge from the frayed sleeve ends). I don't have much choice in the matter: what Mum and Dad say goes, and school uniform is non-negotiable: trousers for girls punishable by death (or at least detention); wellies regulation footwear on a wet day while, in winter, I am issued with a duffle coat that smells increasingly of wet labrador the longer its length of service. Both are eventually stashed under a hedge at the top of the street for the duration of the school day (that might explain the doggy whiff), then retrieved for the walk home. If my parents know, they never let on.

We eat school lunches, at which shepherd's pie and other mince-based savouries feature heavily, but the highlight is always pudding: toffee tart, apple charlotte, pineapple upside down cake – all drowned in a giant vat of custard (with a thick skin on top).

By the age of seven, I'm walking to school alone, though it will take another three years to persuade my parents to let me get on a bus without them. On one of my early expeditions to town, I get my ears pierced against their express permission, and face Dad's wrath on my return (smacking is still commonplace, though Mum will never raise her hand to us).

"When I started school in the 1970s the fear of the cane was still there," agrees Sarah Burton, policy development manager at Children In Scotland, an umbrella group for organisations working with children and families. "It was horrible. Now there is no corporal punishment, which I think has influenced parents' attitudes too, so that smacking is less socially acceptable and less common than before. Though, of course," she adds, "it still happens."

After school, and too young yet to have our own set of keys, we might sit on the doorstep waiting for Mum to come home from her part-time job. Ours is a trusting, more innocent time. It's a cliche, of course, because there are dangers: I remember being horrified by news of the Yorkshire Ripper and the fear of nuclear war is still very real. But, with only three TV channels and no computer games, we are left to invent our own entertainment. We play Charlie's Angels and Starsky And Hutch, fighting crime along the disused railway line, leaping out from behind bollards, our hands fused together in a makeshift gun.

We stay out till it's dark, then wander home when we are hungry. And though we sometimes have babysitters, our parents' social life revolves around the home: dinner parties are common, friends come round for supper or we decamp to theirs, the children falling asleep on a pile of scratchy coats on the bed then carried into the car for the drive home (no car seats necessary).

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"I remember sitting in cars with no seatbelts and even sitting in the boot of a hatchback with my cousins on long journeys," says Burton, "so I am glad that today's parents are a bit more protective when it comes to driving.

"Equally, I remember many smoke-filled rooms growing up, so I think protecting children from smoke has been a great improvement."

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August 1998. Monica Lewinsky is in the news for all the wrong reasons, the Spice Girls are at No 1 (minus Ginger) and Lethal Weapon 4 is showing at the local multiplex.

Less notable on the world stage, but an important milestone none the less in my life is that it is the first day at school for my five-year-old daughter.

Breakfast is a choice of Coco Pops or Cheerios – or any number of alternative cereals, picked for the toy inside the box, and eaten at the kitchen table (some traditions are worth holding on to). However, the morning cartoons are beckoning loudly from the living room.

School uniform is still de rigueur, but when something gets worn out, this modern mum doesn't reach for her needle and thread, she reaches for her credit card instead. Life's too short to sew. And, thanks to the new phenomenon of pester power, it's not long before Daughter is only too aware of changing fashions – and makes her opinions on the subject known in no uncertain terms. What? Wear last term's pleated skirt? Not likely. Barbie schoolbag? Don't you know I'm into Bratz now?

Fussy eating habits mean it has to be a packed lunch for Madam, though concerns about health (not to mention pressure from teachers and fellow parents) require this to be a well thought-out, balanced box containing, perhaps, chopped carrots, a handful of grapes, muesli bar, mini yoghurt and healthy, wholegrain roll.

"Ours is a more unequal society today economically and in lots of other ways," says Burton, "so that some parents are much more aware of a healthy diet to the point of obsession, while others have no idea how to cook or what food to buy. The more limited fare in the 1970s meant people's diets were generally better. Now lives are more rushed, with more than one parent working, so less time is spent preparing food, which often leads to poorer choices."

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Daughter is ten before she is allowed to walk to school on her own, and 14 before she's let loose on a bus; she can't even walk to the corner shop at the top of the road until she's seven. Fortunately, the birth of after-school clubs, combined with an omni-present grandma, mean childcare is sorted and Mum is able to work full time.

But the round of children's birthday parties, trips to the bowling, trampoline centre and soft play emporia put paid to Mum and Dad's social lives and in the end, they're the ones left needing an early night.

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That's not the only change to occur in the last 30 years. "There are more fathers at the school gates than in the 1970s," says Burton. "And there are more complex families, with step siblings, lone parents etc, but life back in the 1970s wasn't rosy. There were the same issues, and many more unhappy marriages, and many unhappy women stuck at home doing all the housework.

"So I don't expect really that parents' hopes and fears for their children have changed – they still want them to be happy and healthy – it's just the landscape and pressures that are different and it takes a bit of time sometimes for our attention to catch up with what the issues are that are causing us problems as parents today.

"Maybe in time flexible working, shorter hours, better outdoor space and better food will become as important to us as seatbelts and no-smoking laws are now."


THEN: Skipping, elastics and trading scrapbook pictures dominated the playground, while after school we played kerby (throwing a ball to the opposite kerb, aiming for it to bounce back) and role play.

NOW: Technology has taken over, with PS3s, Nintendo DSs, mobile phones and iPods (though she devours books, reading with a torch under the duvet long after bedtime – some things never change).


THEN: Teachers still used corporal punishment – usually the belt or the cane – while smacking was not yet frowned upon in polite society.

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NOW: Physical punishment is socially unacceptable and parents are encouraged to use methods such as time out and removing privileges instead.


THEN: I had the same leather satchel for seven years – one I wore unfashionably on my back.

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NOW: She just had to have a Barbie bag (although that changed on an almost termly basis, depending on what was the doll, cartoon character or Disney princess of the day).


THEN: Brownies on a Friday night.

NOW: Ballet on a Monday, drama on a Tuesday, swimming on a Thursday, Brownies on a Friday ... then she complains of being bored on a Saturday.


THEN: Teatime featured classics such as mince and potatoes, combined with new convenience foods such as Smash, boil-in-the-bag fish dinners, Angel Delight and Arctic Roll.

NOW: She likes nothing better than a takeaway pizza or chicken nuggets, followed by Ben and Jerry's Cookie Dough ice-cream.


Not only do five-year-olds know their own age, some know their own number. More than half of British children aged five to nine have a mobile phone, despite warnings about radiation. Five-year-olds must receive full-time education.


Children can be stubborn and demanding as they develop a taste of freedom. They aren't disrespecting you, so there's no need to get into debates. They are simply learning the rules. Your rules. Keep an eye on what they say.


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It has become common for children to have internet access in their room – a sixth of those aged eight to 11, a third of those aged 12 to 15, and three per cent aged five to seven have access.


Some girls hit puberty at nine, but most at 12 or 13. Boys tend to reach it slightly later, but may begin to develop sexually without looking older. Discuss these issues before they arise.

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• This article was first published in The Scotland on Sunday, April 18, 2010