I didn't have an incredibly stimulating childhood in terms of intellectual development. I was pretty much a latch-key kid from around 8 years on. Both my parents worked -- they had to to make ends meet -- and I wound up fending for myself. I discussed the role that board games and computer games played in my life, but there's something else that was also important. The Rankin-Bass version of the Hobbit that appeared on tv. It was, looking back, a pretty cheesy affair, with Orson Bean as Bilbo Baggins, and Otto Preminger as Thorin. But to me, a working-class kid with little to no exposure to anything remotely intellectual, it was a godsend. Afterwards, I read Tolkien and that led me to Medieval history and that led me to other histories and historians. It took me to college and graduate school and eventually to where I am today.
I know lots of cultural critics rail against the adverse impact of tv on kids and I sort-of get that. But there's another side to all this. Television can also open up worlds to kids who might otherwise have no exposure to anything beyond their own neighborhood. My only point here is that none of this cultural impact stuff is not a simplistic affair.
I also know that this sort of thing smacks of the nerdiest of all pursuits. I guess I'm guilty as charged in that regard. As I got older, I became embarrassed by Tolkien and didn't exactly wear it on my sleeve. But as I enter my 40s, I've become considerably more appreciative of what Tolkien's works did for me. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Tolkien (and war games) got me out of my hometown and off to university.
There are more romantic and sophisticated paths to a life of the mind; my parents didn't read Proust to me or send me off to learn ancient Greek in Athens, but that's my story and I've grown proud of it over the years. What my parents did give me was room to grow and the freedom to develop my own personality. I wasn't molded or shaped by organized activities. I know there are shortcomings to that style of childrearing, but I chose my own path and love what I do.