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5 October 2017

"Toddlers' Truce" - or what it was like to grow up in a bygone era

I don’t know how many of my readers have heard about the wonderfully quirky concept “Toddlers’ Truce”.  It denotes a BBC policy that was in place in post-war Britain until early 1957 and it meant that for several years there was no television transmission between the hours of 6 pm (when children’s programmes ended) and 7 pm when the shows for a more mature audience started.  This TV-free hour was meant to give parents the opportunity to put their offspring to bed peacefully – without tantrums!  No screaming toddlers who wanted to watch just one more episode of their favourite show (“Honestly!  Just one!  And then I will go to bed, I promise!”).  And, might I add:  no conflicted parents who rushed the precious bedside storytelling time because they really did not want to miss out on their instalment of ‘Downton Abbey’.  No TV, just blacked out screens, so what else was there to do but to put your children to bed calmly?

Even in the 1950s there were voices who saw this practice as patronising and as an indication of a nanny state.  Surely it was a family matter when to put your toddlers to bed, and not part of BBC’s responsibilities?  With the advent of commercial TV in the fifties, the policy was finally discontinued, as it seemed to favour the BBC (not dependent on ad revenues) over its rival channels.  It is, however, interesting to see this early attempt at an enforced media detox – a quirky piece of trivia.

Every senior educator who might ever have tried to encourage their staff to have a few email free days, a digital detox to revive the good old art of face-to-face conversation or, lo and behold, even handwritten notes, will know that the current addiction to digital media is afflicting adults as well as teenagers – the problem is certainly not a toddler issue any longer, as is proven by the outcry and reasons given by some adults against such a project.

Is the tide turning?  I have just read an article about an extensive study that was undertaken in the UK where young people were questioned about social media and their pros and cons.  An astonishing number of young people expressed the wish that social media had never been invented; a large number of them described how they imposed regular digital detoxes upon themselves to escape not only the relentless pressures (of receiving a certain minimum number of likes, of looking as gorgeous as their friends in their swimwear, of having as enviable a social life as their peers), but also to escape something they increasingly see as highly addictive. 

Whilst smoking, alcohol and drug abuse have decreased, an unhealthy addiction to mobile devices and social media has steadily increased.  It is healthy that young people increasingly question their own dependency; it is also important to recognise that these devices are here to stay and that they enable us to do many exciting things:  to connect with others in extensive networks, locally, regionally and globally, and to develop exciting entrepreneurial skills.

I can see all the advantages very clearly, I am neither a dinosaur nor Catweazle, and yet:  I am so glad to have grown up in a pre-social media generation.  Reading about this quaint concept of the Toddlers’ Truce made me reflect on some of the experiences of my generation (and previous ones) that are hard – if not impossible – to explain to the teenagers of today.

Staying with the topic of media:  watching TV was a family affair, something communal.  When I grew up, it was often criticised:  families should sit round the dinner table and talk to each other rather than having their food on their laps and look at a screen.  Nowadays, many people lament the loss of shows that bring the whole family together – you laughed together, guessed the answers of a quiz together - , whereas these days everybody has their own TV or laptop and can watch their own favourite show in the privacy of their bedroom.  No more fighting about the remote.  But also:  the skills needed to negotiate, the art to compromise, sometimes giving in to a younger sibling, making a sacrifice – have they been lost?

In my family, we did actually sit around the table every day.  School finished at 1:10 on most days, my sister and I lived close and came home for lunch at 1:20, my father left the house at 1:50 to go to work, and these precious 30 minutes at lunch were usually the time when my sister and I told our parents everything that had happened at school in the morning.  Our evenings were more bohemian – our parents often worked at night, we went to the theatre and concerts a lot, ate late, watched some TV and usually went to bed before our father got home from his late-night shifts at the newspaper where both my parents worked.

When I grew up, there were no TV recording devices.  And so you sometimes had to make a tough choice:  go to this amazing party, or watch the final episode of your favourite show?  Now we can have it all – we can record our favourite programmes and still have fun at the party.  Is this a good thing?  Or has the availability of everything at any time actually decreased the value of the things we used to anticipate so eagerly?

Or take photographs:  I remember so vividly the old days of film rolls.  They were not cheap – when my family went on family holidays, my sister and I were usually allowed one or two rolls of film, with either 24 or 36 pictures on them, and we had to ‘budget’ carefully so that they would last us for our 3-week holiday in the Austrian or Swiss alps.  I recall instances of carefully preserving my very last photograph for the summit of a long mountain walk.  You finally made it to the top, you arrange your family for a wonderful group shot – and just as you are about to take this special photo, some stupid man accidentally walks into the picture and ruins it.  And you can’t retake it!

Nowadays you can happily snap away and take as many pictures as you like.  You can preview them.  When you come home from your holidays, there are no surprises though.  I remember the excitement of my childhood when we took the pictures to the shop to be developed.  We did not know how they had turned out.  There were so many surprises (good ones and not so good ones – my grandmother for example had the tendency to cut people’s heads off), but when we looked at the developed paper photos together as a family, it was almost like experiencing the whole holiday again.  It made it special, and we made real photo albums, sticking pictures in with glue, writing captions by hand, living documents, not the more ‘perfect’ and less personal photo books of today.  And how many of our digital photos these days are leading a sad and lonely life in some obscure computer sub-folders?

And there were so many advantages of growing up without a mobile.   As children, my sister and I loved going for little cycling adventures.  We were only allowed to go ‘round the block’ of flats and council apartments where we grew up, but that quickly got boring.  We ventured out further and further – and I think we did not confess to our parents until we were in our forties!  How lucky that we did not have mobiles which would have enabled our mum to keep tabs on us.  She simply trusted us – we knew we had to be back for lunch, or before dark in the evening, and we were reliable in that respect.  At the same time our little unauthorised ventures gave us experiences and confidence.  Is the anxiety of over-protective parents who keep tabs on their children via mobile phones all the time maybe contributing to the anxieties of the young generation these days?

One device that is hard to explain to tech-savvy pupils today is the typewriter.  I did my first years as a teacher in pre-computer times.  Every worksheet had to be typed, and when I wanted to use pictures these had to be copied from books, then cut out and glued to paper before being photocopied.  It seems ante-diluvian nowadays, but at the time it was perfectly normal.  Worse even:  every document I typed, my application letters, my Masters dissertation, my PhD thesis - whenever you made a typing mistake, you cursed under your breath, you ripped the sheet out, you crumpled it up, threw it in the corner and started again. 

I remember getting my first electronic typewriter and feeling so lucky:  being able to go back to a previous line and delete a wrong letter with corrective tape and then overwrite it.  It was time-consuming, it was fiddly, but oh!  It felt like heaven not having to type the whole sheet again.  How easy by comparison is word processing on a computer.  Even I with all my old-fashioned thinking and nostalgically rose-tinted spectacles don’t want to go back to typewriting – and yet:  there was a certain magic about the good old typewriter and the clattering sounds it produced. I will always associate them with the creativity of crafting a piece of writing.  The clattering of the manual typewriter sang me to sleep when I was a child, as my parents are both journalists and often wrote late at night when my sister and I had gone to bed.  And I earned my first money by typing hundreds and hundreds of addresses of bank customers on sticky labels for my aunt who worked as a secretary at one of Heidelberg’s financial institutions.

Or let us talk about money and shopping!  How often did my mother exclaim, at 2:40 pm on a Friday:  “Children!!!  I have no money in the house!  I have to rush to the bank!”  And my sister and I, always up for a little adventure, would quickly put our shoes on and run to the bank with our mother, hoping to make it before 3 pm when the bank closed.  Missing the deadline would have meant having no cash for the weekend (and there were no credit or debit cards in those days) – hard to explain this to people today who are used to having an ATM at every street corner.  And supermarket shopping:  shops closed at 1 pm on a Saturday and did not open again until Monday morning.  Tough luck if you came late.  It certainly taught you the discipline of time management.  Today’s flexible arrangements are convenient for the consumer, but how lovely was it for the shop assistants to have their weekends off like most people.

What else do I remember that was different in my youth?  Well, there was the coalman who delivered the coal, throwing it from the street through a little window into our cellar, from where my father carried it up to our flat on the third floor to heat our oil furnaces.  My parents did not get central heating until 1999 (which was also the year that made them grandparents – and the year that I bought my first computer, aged 33).

Or the days when you could have the satisfaction to slam down the receiver if a phone conversation made you angry.  Try doing this with a mobile phone.  And talking of phones (again!):  the weird old days of dial-up connections for your computer – when you could not get on the internet if somebody else in the house used the telephone.  Or borrowing a video and having to rewind it to the beginning.  Or the cassette tape that had got so muddled that you had to rewind it with a pencil.

Or the days when you could go to your local candy shop and buy sweets for one pfennig a piece.  (Pfennig and Deutsche Mark!).   When we played with marbles in the streets or drove our grumpy old neighbour mad by roller-skating in his courtyard.  Those uncomplicated outdoor games you played with your friends or the children of your neighbours.

When your parents had a visitor who smoked and who sent us to buy her cigarettes, and my sister and I compliantly going to the cigarette dispenser at the corner to get them for her, when we were aged 7 and 9, with nobody batting an eyelid.  Or when our crazy and slightly deranged teacher flew into a rage and threw chalk at us, with no repercussions.

I could go on, and on, and on.  But I won’t.  I am glad about many modern inventions:  the washing machine, the dishwasher and even the computer.  But somehow I am still glad that I grew up in a time when telephones were still attached to the wall and when the expectation was that children wrote handwritten letters and postcards to their grandmother or aunt from their holidays.  I am glad that I effortlessly learned that you can’t always have it all and that you have to make choices.  I am glad that I learned to budget both my time and my money.  I don’t want to miss the excitement of waiting for my holiday photographs to be developed and to see how they turned out.

Some of these things belong to a bygone era, but others can be salvaged.  It is important to make time for family and friends.  It is important to compromise and make choices as well as sacrifices.  It is important to sit down for meals together, without access to devices.  It is important to cultivate the art of good conversation over mindless texting or impersonal emailing, and the art of writing personal letters to people who mean something to us.  I hope that the boxes full of letters that I have from family and friends will survive me.  My email correspondence probably won’t.  Time is precious and quality time matters.  Digital detoxes can be good for the soul.

Maybe this quirkily quaint concept of “Toddlers’ Truce” was not such a bad idea after all?

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