Exploring how Structuring Childhood Affects Children’s Well-Being

Children ultimately understand the world through their interactions with adults. The following is a shortened extract from a paper I wrote as part of my masters study in Children’s Rights, Participation and Well-Being – international perspectives. I am a firm believer in enabling children to be active participants in their own learning, be it academically or in terms of their chosen hobbies and sports. Instead of thinking of children as incompetent and in need of protection, we should think of them as in need of our guidance and advice.  By including children in the day to day decisions which affect them, asking their opinions and thoughts ultimately leads to competence in their decision making skills and builds self confidence.  These, in my opinion, are vital life skills for their present and future well-being. The views outlined below help to shape my own teaching approach and methodologies… 

 

  1. Introduction

Historically, the concept of children’s well-being was constructed from the innate and primal instinct of survival.  Children’s value was directly influenced by the importance of the future of the family unit, both economically and inter-generationally. As children themselves were a means of survival, importance was put on their future contribution to the societies in which they lived. However modern society focuses on the ever growing importance to understand how children experience childhoods.  In the past, the use of indicators as a basis to measure the welfare of children focused on children’s “survival” rather than “well-being” (Ben-Ariah, 2008).  It is this historical background that has sparked my interest in how sociological and economic changes in societies influence children’s individual experiences of childhood, how they change over time and to what affect do these experiences have on children’s well-being?

It is well known that children live in an adult dominated world.  With the introduction of industrialization and the technological advancement of our modern era, there has been a progressive shift from having children as a means of survival to an actual lifestyle choice. This modern society has created the “precious child” or the “project child” (Qvortrup, 1987).  As a result, the values to which we hold children in our society have changed.  The adult dominated separation of childhood to its own social construct has led to the belief that children are being shaped to be future economic contributors to society in the form of “human capitol”.  The idea of the “precious child” has also led to the strengthening belief that children are in need of “protection” from the adult world (James et al., 1998), thus, segregating them further within our societies.

Taking this into account, to what extend has this shift in attitude affected children’s well-being?  Childhood is a multi-dimensional period of time in a person’s life, which can have major influences on their future being. Childhood is experienced in different ways by those from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.  If children are living in an adult centred, economically driven world and are increasingly being separated into their own social constructs, how can their well-being be truly taken into account when they are not being seen as inclusive members of our society?  Are children given the opportunity to freely express themselves, their feelings and opinions and are life experiences taken into account in regards to issues which affect them?

Throughout this paper I will explore how adult dominated societies affect children’s experiences of childhood.  It will explore how conceptualizing childhood as a separate social construct ultimately affects well-being in its different dimensions.  I will explore the measures that are being put in place to include the views and opinions of children in situations that directly impact on their lives, all with a view to explore how structuring childhood ultimately affects children’s well-being.

  1. The Changing Concepts of Childhood

Traditionally, children contributed greatly to the economic status of their families and within their surrounding communities.  This is because they were seen as an integral part of the work force. In an Irish context, Devine (2008) describes how children’s responsibilities within the family unit where to fulfill generational continuity; work on family farms and within local towns and eventually become carers to their parents (page 85). With the advancement of technology and industrialisation, governments recognised the need for better skilled and educated work forces in order to keep up with the advancement of competitive economically driven societies (Qvortrup, 1987, Devine, 2008).  Thus began the concept of “childhood” as a defined period in a person’s life and the segregation of children into specifically designated areas.  Qvortrup, (1987), outlines that by “discovering childhood,” society ultimately began the segregation of children from adult society.

Following this were the socio and political changes in the attitudes of societies towards childhood. Children were recognised in their capacity to contribute to the society not just at local level, but in in relation to the long term goal of economic gain and sustainability of the society as a whole. Changes in political policies, for example in Ireland, moved the responsibility of the education and upbringing of the child solely from the home, to the state sharing the responsibility through major changes within educational policy (Devine, 2008, p87).  This shift in attitude towards viewing children as “human capitol” began a type of childhood renaissance, to which a complete change occurred, not only in the socio-economic value of “the child,” but also in childhood geographies through the introduction of child specific areas, such as sophisticated educational institutions and designated play areas.

Now with the study of childhood being a subject area in itself, many experts claim that experiences of childhood in post-industrial modern societies are becoming more individualised and professionalised as a whole.  Demands by society see much investment in areas of education thus leading to today’s children staying in educational institutions for longer periods of time.  This, with the increasing professionalization of society ultimately puts more pressures on young people to attain higher levels of education in order to stay ahead.

James et al. (1998) explain how social constructionalists are of the belief that “children are not formed by natural or social forces but rather that they inhabit a world of meaning created by themselves and through their interaction with adults,” (P28).  Taking into account Hengst’s, (1987), belief that the experience of childhood has been so structured in modern society that experiences of it are indistinguishable, the effect of post-industrial modern society is a trend of streamlining children’s experiences of childhood through a type of educational institutionalisation, with the end goal of “becoming” a professional adult (Qvotrup, 1987).  Society dictates that children must “better themselves” in order to be successful and participating future adults. In terms of well-being, is this trend of professionalization and increased emphasis on education for the benefit of children’s well-being, or a direct result of human or social-capitol as mentioned earlier?  Furthermore, how does this trend of professionalization affect individuals and communities who may not have access to such educational facilities or opportunities?

The separation of children and childhood from the adult world is ultimately demoralizing children into a minority status, and in doing so, leading to children being thought of as “other,” by comparison to adults.  Children are thought of as incomplete, or still in a state of “becoming,” where adults are considered as complete or “whole” (Devine, 2008, Qvoturp, 2008, Tisdale et al., 2012).  This stigma of children as not yet fully competent, in my opinion, completely disregards their capacity to articulate themselves and exert their agency, and in an essence is an adult form of exerting control.

Although modern society has led to the separation of childhood, I am of the belief that childhood runs conclusively alongside the development of adulthood.  James et al. (1998) outline the growing need to understand that children should be thought of as “social actors shaping as well as shaped by their circumstances,” (p6).  Experiences in childhood are ultimately what influence the direction our lives take as adults.  The idea that children are in a state of becoming and that by becoming an adult, by means of age, is in disrepute as adults too are categorically still in a state of becoming themselves (Tisdall et al., 2012).

Adults, in a way, still strive to “become.”  Ambition and competitiveness are innate traits (of survival) that cause human beings to strive for better opportunities and outcomes.  The degree to our ambition can be said to be influenced by the social contexts we find ourselves, meaning ultimately, society is a constant state of becoming in itself.  In principle, the society in which we live sets the bar to which we strive to achieve, but societal demands ebb and flow with time. It is in this assumption that I question to what extent does society truly take into account children’s actual well-being?

Well-being is a hard term to define and is open to interpretation and therefore, can be taken advantage of.  In an adult dominated world, ideas of what is truly in the best interest of the child vary. However, if we are to think of children and adults and as equals, it is important to high light how adult centred concepts of well-being can influence the opportunities afforded to children to voice their opinions and have their views taken into account.  One could say that listening to the opinion of a child still remains a choice for adults rather than the right of a child in today’s society (Devine, 2008).

  1. The UNCRC; Pro or Con?

The ultimate goal of the UNCRC can be said to ensure the global well-being of children. However, although member states are bound to the treaty’s fundamental aspirations, it has allowed for the varied interpretation of what is good for the child from a cross-national perspective.  James et al. (2008), explain the importance of understanding how issues surrounding children’s rights and welfare by “finding common expression in different societies, since this is arguably a profoundly important indicator of the way in which different societies understand and view children and childhood,” (p1).  As the European Union has come together under the same flag in a hope to achieve commonality across its member states, clear difficulties arise in doing so as there are obvious differences in the cultural and societal influences of each country.  As a result, UNICEF reported in 2007 a number of discrepancies across the member states as each country had their own interpretation of the children’s rights initiatives as set in place by the EU (p2).

Listening to children’s voice in matters that concern them is fundamentally an adult choice.  This attitude can be said to be born from the concept of children as other or still in a stage of becoming.  Adult beliefs as to what is good for the child are heavily influenced by how much they deem them to be socially competent in their roles as social actors within society.  This is highly reflected in the EU’s declaration in regards to children’s rights;

  1. Children shall have the right to such protection and care as is necessary for their well-being. They may express their views freely. Such views shall be taken into consideration on matters which concern them in accordance with their age and maturity. (European Commission)

This reinforces Qvortrup’s (1987) idea that children are described by means of their age and that they are categorically forced into a minority status.  The wording within this declaration suggests that children are attributed with an incompetence or inability for understanding and articulation in regards to the issues that surround them. It also leads to the belief that the “best interest” assumptions of well-being, are firmly based in what adults regard to be relevant or of importance.  Using age as a criteria to define childhood is problematic insofar that different cultures have different opinions as to when a child actually reaches adulthood.  Ages of consent vary across European countries from thirteen to eighteen, as do laws regarding the legal age of marriage. In this regard, how does policy protect the well-being of a child under eighteen (as described by the UNCRC) in regards to whether or not they are mature enough to marry, yet, they are legally deemed unfit to vote?  Do the political opinions of a seventeen year old vary that greatly from an eighteen year old?  This is just one example of discrepancy in the ideals surrounding the implementation of the articles of the convention.

Qvortrup further states that “the only remaining population that systematically and generally is denied civil rights is children,” and in doing so, asks the question, although children may not be fully aware of their rights, should adults not recognise them?  However, there may be a conflict of interest in recognising children’s voice and rights when you relate them to issues around power and control.  If children are given a more influential role in policy making, how could this affect adult interests? Could it be possible that by reinforcing the ideals around the protection of the child, society is reinforcing incompetence rather than acknowledging the actual ability of children to participate?

Tistdall and Punch (2012) outline how those working within the field of childhood studies criticise the UNCRC for portraying a global childhood, leading to the universalizing of childhoods.  They claim the welfare basis of the treaty is discriminatory as it is aimed towards the minority world as opposed to the majority world. Taking this into account, it can be said that it does not realise different needs cross culturally.  The theme of protection comes through as Tisdall et al. also point out how media coverage and organisations deem to rescue children from certain situations in order to “return them to childhood.”  Although it is important to protect children from negative aspects of society such as exploitation and abuse, is this actually enabling children’s minority status by the exaggeration of the need for children to be protected from the adult world? And is society mistakenly promoting their incompetence?  By doing so, society is undermining children and inadvertently forcing them into their own social worlds where they can express themselves and exert their agency, free from adult reign, thus enforcing the segregation of child and adult worlds.

  1. Societal Influences on the “Good” Life?

The measure of what makes a childhood “good” can be heavily influenced by adult perceptions. What makes an adult “happy” in their life, doesn’t necessarily mean it leads to a happy childhood; and as Camfielda (2010) adds, the promotion of well-being can be disguised as a promotion to live a certain type of life.  Children’s well-being and happiness was historically built around their means of survival. Now issues around well-being take into account what children need for the life they are living today, with importance stressed on monitoring and measuring their well-being within society.

Just as interpretations of children’s rights and their implementation can vary greatly, as outlined earlier, so can concepts of children’s well-being.  This demonstrates the adult centred influence that occurs when children’s voice is not taken into consideration when deeming what is relevant to their needs.  Casas (2008) outlines how research into children’s quality of life very often does not include children themselves, rather the perceptions that adults have in relation to what they think about children’s needs.  He states that this is a misuse as “it undermines its (QOL) very foundations- the centraility of people’s own perceptions, evaluations and aspirations” (p65). Furthermore, he outlines the importance of taking life experiences into account when discussing well-being as; “material conditions may therefore reveal little about peoples worries or needs,” (p64).

In light of the speed in which technology is updated, in what way do these indicators reflect the ever changing social geographies of childhood?  In today’s modern and highly technological societies adult centred decision making is effectively pushing children into social spheres in which adults have no control.  These virtual social spheres allow children to freely express themselves, unsupervised and free from the influence and interference of adults.  Ironically, by treating children as “other” and separating them into their own social constructs, society ultimately exposes them to the very things that it wishes to protect them from.

Modern children’s lives can be said to be dictated by their time table, as discussed earlier in relation to the professionalization of childhood.  Children’s social encounters are structured, where as traditionally, socialising took place in more natural and spontaneous ways.  Hengst (1987) outlines that new forms of child socialization are forming as a result of the restructuring of childhood and that, “the consequence is that children today have experiences of which adults largely remain ignorant (Hengst, 1987).

Demands within society stress importance on being media savvy, but to what effect has pushing children into these virtual worlds had on their well-being?  By living their lives through social media have their views and perception on what is natural been obscured?  Virtual realities endorse anonymity and by doing so, further isolate children from the natural world.  As stated earlier, by not taking into account children’s views and opinions, and by forcing them into their own social constructs where they can display their agency and expression, has society exposed them to a world which is ultimately affecting their well-being?

Recently a RTE report outlined how young girls’ social media photos are ending up on hard-core pornography sites, unbeknown to them.  Major debates still rage on as to the effect of “Ask FM”, an anonymous social media site where by children are being targeted by bullies and has led to a number of adolescent suicides.  To what extent has the fabricated media portrayal of public figures appearances had on young peoples’ perception of their own appearances?  Ultimately, children are still exposed to negative aspects of society, but in a way that adults predominately remain ignorant to. Children’s well-being is ultimately affected by the exertion of societal and media pressures to attain certain levels of academic or professional achievement, and aspirations to look a certain way and live a certain life.

 

Conclusion

Although children have always been present, are they considered, or have they ever been considered, equal members of our societies?  Childhood is an ever changing process which is influenced by the environments we live in, our cultural ideals and morals and the pressures of the societies in which we live in.  To truly take into account children’s experiences of childhood and their well-being, society should afford children the respect to have their voices heard and views taken into account.

Many issues regarding children’s well-being are generally situated around issues of voice and lack of opportunities to participate in the decision making processes which affect them.  I ask, how often do we, as influential individuals in children’s lives, actually ask them what they want?  From my personal experience, asking a child what their opinion is, or what they feel is relevant to the situation at hand is the first step in showing them respect and that you view them as an equal.  By doing so, building a rapport and instilling a mutual respect leads to co-operation, positive learning experiences and bridges the societal gap created between the child and adult worlds.

In order to include children’s voice we must firstly change societal attitudes that are still embedded around the exclusionary concepts of children as “other”.  Instead of thinking of children incompetent and in need of protection, I feel that children are equal to adults, and rather than exerting control and protection over them, we should think of them as in need of our guidance and advice.  To repeat Hengst (1987) from earlier in this paper, children understand the world through their interactions with adults.  By including children in the day to day decisions which affect them, asking their opinions and thoughts ultimately leads to competence in their decision making skills and builds their self confidence.  These, in my opinion, are vital life skills for their present and future well-being. Taking this into consideration, would this not benefit the well-being of the society as a whole, as children are the future adults of our societies?

Bibliography

Ben-Arieh, A (2008) Indicators and indices of children’s well-being: towards a more policy orientated perspective, European Journal of Education, Vol 43, No 1: 37-50

Camfielda, L;  Streulia N and Martin Woodhead (2010) Children’s Well-being in Developing Countries: A Conceptual and Methodological Review, European Journal of Development Research, Vol 22, 398–416.

Casas, F (2008) ‘Children’s Cultures and New Technologies: A Gap Between Generations? Some Reflections from the Spanish Context’, in James, A. and James, A. (eds) European Childhoods: Cultures, Politics and Participation; New York, Palgrave Press

Devine, D. (2008) ‘Children at the margins? – Changing constructions of childhood in contemporary Ireland,’ in James, A. and James, A. (eds) European Childhoods: Cultures, Politics and Participation; New York, Palgrave Press

James, A., Jenks, C. and Prout, A., (1998), Theorizing Childhood, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Larkins, C., (2014) Enacting children’s citizenship: Developing understandings of how children enact themselves as citizens through actions and Acts of citizenship  Childhood, Vol. 21 No 1, 1–15

Qvortrup, J., (1987) The Sociology of Childhood, International Journal of Sociology, Vol. 17 No. 3 3-37

Spyros, S., (2011) The limits of children’s voices: From authenticity to critical reflexive representation Childhood 18(2) 151–165

Tisdall, E.K.M. and Punch, S., (2012) Not so ‘new’? Looking critically at childhood studies. Children’s Geographies, Vol. 10 No 3, 249–264.

UNICEF; The State of the World’s Children 2005, Children Under Threat, Childhood Defined http://www.unicef.org/sowc05/english/childhooddefined.html accessed on the 30/11/2014

 

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