Childhood is changing – by Laura Wyatt

What was your childhood like?

Many parents today will tell you that their childhood was a time of freedom, a simpler time, with less stress, less complexity. And, for all the struggles or hardships, they are glad that they grew up then and not now, with all the social media craziness, selfie culture and mental health issues. Childhood is changing.

Teachers or youth workers will also often talk about budget cutting, especially the closure of youth clubs and services and a harsher welfare state – all heaping pressure on families. And having spent fifteen years working in the youth sector, at grassroots and senior level, I would say there are undeniable challenges. But I also see amazing progress in some areas – we just don’t often get to hear about it. 

Is childhood better or worse than a generation ago?

Since becoming a parent, I have become fascinated by how childhood is changing and whether it is for the better or the worse. So, to help me find some answers, I decided to pull together some leading childhood and youth experts and start a podcast!

In Childhood Heroes, we explore the big themes affecting modern childhood – and here, I will share some of what we have learned so far…

Life is better for young people in many ways…

Lucy Emmerson, CEO of the Sex Education Forum, highlighted how Sex and Relationships Education is now mandatory in all mainstream schools in England. The days of dodgy demonstrations of condoms on broom handles (tell me, that wasn’t just my teacher?!) and girly blushes over tampon talks whilst the boys got to play football are over. Our children today can expect better quality teaching on a range of topics, including healthy relationships, diverse families and sexual health. Lucy says that there is more to be done – especially around educating young people about tricky but vital subjects such as porn culture and sexual pleasure – but it’s definite progress!

Stuart Whatmore, Head of the Triborough Music Hub in London, pointed out that young people have the opportunity to become bedroom musicians, creating music through technology that we could have only dreamed of… With access to a smart phone and the internet, nowadays the opportunities are endless.

And Carl Austin-Behan OBE talked about how the lives of LGBTQ+ young people have vastly improved (albeit more work is needed) – a point well made, when you consider Carl’s own journey from being kicked out of the Airforce and facing jail for being gay (being gay in the forces was illegal) and his journey to become the first openly gay Mayor of Manchester.

But progress can be painful

Elliott Rae, Founder of MFF, spoke about positive changes to fatherhood and equal parenting, but also how challenges remain. Elliott spoke about how he still faces racist stereotypes and discrimination from even the most seemingly innocent of places – parent and baby play groups.

If the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us anything this year, surely it is that progress can be uncomfortable, even painful, but that if our children are to be raised in a better, fairer world, it is on us to face up to our problems. Because what is the alternative? That some of us keeping our eyes tightly shut to reality, whilst others have no choice but to stare it down daily? No. Staying, the way we always were, is the only thing more damaging, more painful, than change.

Stubborn issues remain 

Some of the most vulnerable children in our society are those who cannot be cared for by their parents, and so are in the care system. Speaking to Hugh Thornberry CBE, it was reassuring to hear how professional standards had been driven up over a generation, particularly with regards to safeguarding against the historic horrors of many children’s homes. But for some, childhood is changing more slowly than it should. Serious issues remain for children in care – many are moved home multiple times a year, siblings are separated and access to desperately needed mental health support is woeful.

Furthermore, “problematic, criminal member of the underclass” turned writer, performer and broadcaster, Byron Vincent touched upon the impact of poverty on life chances. An issue that Marcus Rashford has also shone a spotlight (or rather floodlight!) on this year with his campaigns against holiday hunger. Indeed, childhood inequality does seem to be increasing, which is an issue we will dig into more in Season 2…

New challenges arise

The world is changing at a pace, and Lauren Seager-Smith, CEO of Kidscape, talked about some of the biggest issues for parents – screen time, online hate and bullying. Lauren advised parents on how to support your children to be resilient in this increasingly individualistic, fast paced and always “on” world.

Finally, the big topic that is on everyone’s lips is freedom. Freedom to play. Unstructured time to explore, to be outside, to take risks, to just be a kid. This is a biggie. And we have a special guest lined up in Series 2 who will help us understand how this change in lifestyle is shaping our kids and who they grow up to be.

If you would like to find out more about how childhood is changing, then check out Childhood Heroes the podcast at and click subscribe. I hope it will leave you feeling better informed about the facts, and more hopeful for your kids’ future.

Laura Wyatt-Smith

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