At any given time, societies – and their people – hold various ideas about what constitutes “childhood”. These notions are culture-bound: they differ according to personal, social, economic, political and cultural contexts. In the Victorian era, for example, children were regarded as economic assets – expected to work long hours in order to contribute financially to family life. This is in stark comparison to the contemporary notion that children are in fact very expensive to raise! Today, there exists a huge array of socio-cultural perceptions about children: about their nature, their roles in society, and their capabilities. The increasingly diverse population in the UK leads to further cultural nuances and variations in the ways in which children are regarded.
Take a moment and consider: what are your perceptions and beliefs about children?
Do you, for example, connect with the wide-spread ‘dependency’ discourse, which emphasises children’s innocence, vulnerability and need for protection? A discourse which is underpinned by an array of social campaigns, not-for-profit organisations, and legal frameworks established to protect children from the detrimental effects of poverty, abuse, ill-health, and war.
Do you place value on children’s autonomy, on their independence? If so, you are not alone: the last few decades have been marked by a growing ideology of a child-centred society in which children’s autonomy and independence are emphasised, their contributions to society are valued, and their rights are treated as paramount.
Perhaps you share the socio-political belief that children “are the life-blood of the nation and are vital for our future economic survival and prosperity” (Department of Health, 2004). As such, you may believe that children are a treasured and precious resource, and that they hold an especially valued place in society. This ideal is evident across varying cultural streams. For example, the 2012 Olympic “inspire a generation” motto held firm as seven young aspiring athletes were honoured with the task of lighting the Olympic cauldron, a motion towards the value that children hold as future ambassadors of society.
Many of you, undoubtedly, will feel strongly about the growing status of children as consumers. They are, of course, living in the midst of an increasingly consumerist and commercialist world, which targets them as direct consumers of materialistic and appearance-related products.
Such conceptions of children and young people are limitless and ever changing: ‘smart’, ‘hoodies’, ‘lazy’, ‘strong’ are amongst the many perceptions that our culture holds about children and young people. Graham Music offers an interesting chapter in his book “Nurturing Natures”, highlighting the “extraordinary richness of cultural diversity” in the ways in which children are reared, represented and conceptualised around the world.
This diversity has implications for children, young people and their families. Socio-cultural perceptions of children underpin the ways in which they are talked to, treated, disciplined and so on. They impact on children and young people’s sense of competency and empowerment, their emotional and psychological well-being, and their physical safety. Moreover, differences in parenting ideologies – is breast-feeding best? Should a child have strict boundaries? At what age should a child’s independence be promoted?– can cause conflict for parents, on both intrapersonal and interpersonal levels. It is, in fact, often these differences that predicate the child-rearing and parenting debates that occur on online forums, amongst friends, and between family members.
Negotiating our way through these multiple complex ideologies can be a challenging process, especially in the context of ideologies that underpin harmful and abusive practices. Perhaps an important first-step is adopting a position of ‘mindful curiosity’: developing an awareness of our beliefs and of the impact of these on others, and being open to learning about others.
Department of Health (2004). Core document: National Service Framework for children, young people and maternity services, London: Stationery OfficeMusic, G. (2010). Nurturing natures: Attachment and children’s emotional, social and brain development. London: Taylor Francis