Childhood a different ball game in the 20th century

Consider the children of the so-called Silent Generation. They were the cohort born between 1925 and 1945.  As youngsters, they were expected to be “seen and not heard”.  It’s hard to imagine that parental direction gaining much traction today. 

Raised in a paternalistic environment, these children were taught by their parents and elders to respect authority, conform and generally do as they were told – or suffer the consequences, which could include “getting the strap” or worse. 

In keeping with the Biblical injunction to “spare the rod or spoil the child”, there was widespread belief in the value of discipline and, if necessary, corporal punishment as essential elements of a good and proper upbringing. 

Just about any adult had licence – or considered they had licence – to administer punishment to a child who erred. 

Certainly, teachers and the clergy, relatives, neighbours and the constabulary felt entitled to give a child “a good clip under the ear”.  Parents rarely objected to discipline meted out to their children. 

If a child complained to a parent, their consolation was likely to be “you must have deserved it”.

At home, children had to eat what they were given or go hungry.  They did chores, not for pocket money, but because that’s the way it was. 

In short, the Silent Generation was not the centre of the family universe as children are today.  Parents, not their offspring, were the key players in the family unit and marriage was the pivotal relationship. 

When Wall Street crashed in 1929, the Australian economy collapsed.  Unemployment was rampant, reaching a peak of 32 per cent in 1932.  If the husband died, became incapacitated or unemployed, or deserted the family, the woman of the house had to go out to work or take in washing and ironing to support the family. 

In those days, childbirth was still a risky business for both mother and babe – and women gave birth more often than they do today.  Although the loss of a baby was always tragic, it was verging on catastrophic for the mother to die.  There were no social safety nets, no childcare centres, no supporting parent benefits. 

When you consider that the maternal mortality rate is now so low, it is hard to imagine that in the 1930s, 700 Australian women died every year due to complications arising from pregnancy or delivery, leaving about 2000 children a year motherless.

These were tough times and sometimes parents, who doubtless cherished their offspring just as parents do today, had to make heartbreaking decisions that had serious adverse consequences for their children.

 Youngsters barely in their teens were pulled out of school and sent to work, bringing an abrupt end to their formal education and, effectively, their childhood. 

Perhaps even worse, children in single-parent families were sometimes sent away to work in live-in domestic arrangements akin to servitude with no guarantee of favourable treatment.  Younger children were farmed out to relatives or friends, causing permanent fragmentation of the family unit.

The Silent Generation toiled on regardless – they had no choice – and developed a strong work ethic.  They experienced the Great Depression and the austerity years that followed. 

They lived through World War II, cut short their education and careers in the cause of the “War Effort” and went on to build the nation of Australia, which is why they are sometimes referred to as the Builders Generation, a term that pays appropriate tribute to their mighty contribution.

But life is what you make it.  All the members of the Silent Generation I spoke to in researching this article were remarkably positive when asked about their childhood, describing it as “idyllic”, “happy”, or “carefree”.

Nine months – yes, nine months – after the demobilisation of troops in October 1945, Australia’s baby boom began, peaking in the mid-1950s and not slowing down until a decade later when the contraceptive pill crept onto the market.  The Baby Boomer generation had arrived in force.  

Ask a Baby Boomer about happy childhood memories and most likely you will hear about endless summer days, playing outdoors from daylight to dusk.  No shoes, no hat, no water bottle – and minimal parental interference. 

Boomer parents had little in common with the hovering helicopter parent or interfering lawnmower parent of today.       

“Go outside and play,” was the parental refrain. So they did.  Some wandered the neighbourhood, with younger siblings or a mongrel dog in tow, looking for a game of backyard cricket, red rover, or cowboys and Indians. 

Girls were perennially keen on skipping and hopscotch, although hula-hoops and yo-yos were big in the ’60s.   

During the Scouts’ annual bob-a-job week, more civic-minded youngsters knocked on doors and offered to mow lawns, wash cars or chop wood in exchange for a shilling in their fundraising envelope. 

The term “stranger danger” had not been coined (pardon the pun) or seriously contemplated.

Having no close neighbours on the family farm, I spent my summer days building make-shift cubby-houses in the scrub, swimming in the creek, catching tadpoles, climbing trees and making very long daisy chains. 

Careful to avoid snakes, spiders, ticks, leeches and barbed wire, I had no company except a lean, black farm dog and a stick, both of which emboldened me as I wandered the paddocks looking for adventure.

Dirty, scratched, hungry and tired from the day’s adventures, Baby Boomers returned home late afternoon to the arms of their loving parents. 

By today’s standards, parents of old could be labelled permissive, careless even.  But in allowing their children the freedom to engage in activities we would now regard as too risky, the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation were able to test and stretch themselves, experience failure and disappointment, solve problems and become independent beings. 

Their Mums and Dads must have done a few things right, don’t you think?