What the past can tell us

Radio 4's contribution to the debate on the best way to bring up children covers 1,000 years in 30 episodes. Elaine Williams reports

The Invention of Childhood. BBC Radio 4, 3.45pm on weekdays for six weeks from September 24

Children today are more circumscribed than at any time in the past. Society both worships them and hems them in on every side. They tend not to die in infancy and we don't hang them for petty theft or send them up chimneys or down mines, or abandon them because we cannot feed them. Indeed, they have become powerful economic consumers and have overtaken adults in visual literacy and ease with technological communication.

Yet young people's dependency on their parents has been extended into their 20s and adults' anxiety for their future is perhaps greater now than ever.

We measure their learning by setting targets every step of the way. We equate their happiness with their safety and restrict their mobility. The area in which typical eight-year-olds can wander unsupervised today is a ninth of that which was available to their parents.

How have we got to this point? In a glorious sweep of historical narrative and in 30 15-minute episodes over six weeks, BBC Radio 4 will present the chronological story of 1,000 years of British children's experiences of childhood. The narrative, presented by former Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo, is the work of Hugh Cunningham, emeritus professor of social history at Kent university. His book The Invention of Childhood will accompany the radio series.

It is a seminal piece of work that begins in a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery. A child's grave is less than a metre long, but contains a feeding bottle shaped like a breast, sign of a parent's care. That nurturing force, along with its opposite, neglect or cruelty, appears as a rich seam through this history which shows how events such as wars, or the invention of printing, or major shifts such as the Reformation or the Industrial Revolution and the influence of thinkers and artists such as John Locke and William Blake, have shaped our notions of childhood, both the way children think about themselves and the way they are regarded by adults. Drawing on primary sources, letters, children's songs and rhymes and recorded conversations, Cunningham's scholarship is alive with voices that have often been muted throughout the ages.

The book ends with a new play by Morpurgo, The Voices of Children, set in a clearing by an upturned oak tree where two contemporary children encounter the ghosts of their peers through past generations.

"I wanted children to have the last word," says Morpurgo. "Children have become a repository for all our hopes and fears and aspirations yet we patronise them, we downplay their resilience and their capabilities, and so their feelings of their own self-worth and usefulness suffer.

"Here we have children's voices through history, strong voices that have been rarely recorded and rarely heard. It has given me a perspective of what it is to be a child, an understanding of history that I wish I had had 30 or 40 years ago, before I became a father, a teacher, a writer."

The whole undertaking - the radio series, presented through Morpurgo's warm and consummate storytelling, the breadth of Cunningham's historical scholarship and the lucidity of his writing - provides context for renewed scrutiny of the nature and experiences of contemporary childhood.

That at least is the hope. Beaty Rubens, the producer who came up with the idea, believes the effect of "recovering" this "lost" narrative could be profound. Morpurgo says: "Our children are retreating into their bedrooms.

We overlook them 24 hours a day. I think we have reached crunch time and hopefully this series and book, which take a line right the way through this huge spread of history to where we are now, will stimulate a great deal of informed argument."

Hugh Cunningham's history argues that the most significant change in our attitudes to childhood came relatively recently, in the second half of the 20th century. Children's education was expanded and extended and parents started to invest in their children as the future, as salvation. Meanwhile, he argues, children became targeted as consumers and treated as almost priceless, "holy objects": still adults' subordinates, but in a different way.

Cunningham points out that none of the current parenting books and programmes provide any historical understanding: "We need to look at history to understand the uniqueness of where we are now. In this series we get a sense of both continuity and change. A society that has no knowledge of its collective past is lost."

The series will be published on CD by BBC Audiobooks on November 6 at pound;25 and is also available as a download. The Invention of Childhood by Hugh Cunningham is published by BBC Books, pound;18.99

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