"Childhood" is in part, a biographical reference to Jackson's difficult years as a youngster, such as the relationship with his father and the pressures of being world famous from such a young age—as the lead member of The Jackson 5.
From a young age Jackson was physically and mentally abused by his father through incessant rehearsals, whippings and derogatory name calling. Jackson's abuse as a child has affected him throughout his later life. In one altercation—later recalled by Marlon Jackson—Joseph held Michael Jackson upside down by one leg and "pummelled him over and over again with his hand, hitting him on his back and buttocks". Joseph would often trip up or push the male children into walls. One night, while Jackson was asleep, Joseph climbed into his room through the bedroom window. Wearing a fright mask, he entered the room screaming and shouting. Joseph said he wanted to teach his children not to leave the window open when they went to sleep. For a number of years afterward, Jackson suffered nightmares about being kidnapped from his bedroom.
Although it had been reported for a number of years that Jackson had an abusive childhood, he first spoke openly about it in a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey. He grimaced when speaking of the childhood abuse at the hands of his father; he believed he had missed out on much of his childhood years, admitting that he often cried from loneliness. In the same interview, speaking of his father, Jackson said, "There were times when he'd come to see me, I'd get sick...I'd start to regurgitate. I'm sorry...Please don't be mad at me...But I do love him". In Jackson's other high profile interview Living with Michael Jackson (2003), the singer covered his face with his hand and began crying when talking about his childhood abuse. Jackson recalled that Joseph sat in a chair as the group rehearsed, saying, "He had this belt in his hand. If you didn't do it the right way, he would tear you up, really get you. It was bad. Real bad".
When Jackson received his lifetime achievement award—presented to him by Janet Jackson—at the 1993 Grammys, he said, "I don't read all the things written about me, I wasn't aware the world thought I was so weird and bizarre. But when you grow up like I did in front of 100 million people since the age of five, you're automatically different...My childhood was completely taken away from me. There was no Christmas, no birthdays. It was not a normal childhood, no normal pleasures of childhood. Those were exchanged for hard work, struggle and pain, and eventual material and professional success".
The video is set in a forest; Jackson, in scruffy clothes, sings "Childhood" while sitting on a tree stump. The camera moves up the trees into the night sky and flying airships travel overhead. On board the ships, children are seen playing a variety of games as they travel further away from Jackson, towards the moon. Other children appear in the forest undergrowth before floating up towards the airships, but Jackson remains seated on the tree stump. Jason James Richter plays a minor role in the video.
The video for "Childhood" is 4:27 minutes long and has little in common with the corresponding film. In the publication, Doug Pratt's DVD: Movies, Television, Music, Art, Adult, and More!, Pratt describes the video as "outstanding, a Chris Van Allsburg-style vision of children in flying airships, crusading through a forest at night".