Tuesday, 19 November 2013

What is ‘childhood’?

Reading the first assigned literature “Theories of Childhood” (Burke, 2008), was an interesting and at times challenging read. I have never considered what the term ‘childhood’ means, though it is a concept that I have constructed personally from my time life experience, from being a child, a teacher and a parent. I had never considered the idea that ‘childhood’ as a concept is relatively new. When considering the lives of children in the past, I merely considered that they were different to childhood’s now for a variety of reasons.

Certainly, I have defined childhood according to parameters based on biological facts such as physical and mental development from birth to 18. I have considered it as a time of learning and development in preparation for participating as a functional adult, according to the cultural norms of the society the child belongs. I have considered it is a time of wonder, awe and imagination. Where the belief that anything is possible is greater than the belief that something cannot be achieved. I have considered it as a time when the person is most vulnerable and needs to be and should be protected from trauma, bullying, violence. I have considered it to be the time where a person prepares and develops for participating in society as an adult.

Looking at my children and their development over the past 4 and 2 years respectively, it has been a time of physical, emotional and social development. It has been a time for developing security, love and a strong emotional connection, where my children feel safe and secure to be the personalities that they are.

It has been a time for developing an understanding of our cultural moral norms. For my 2 year old, recently it has been a time of discussion about the morals of not hitting, biting, pulling of hair. We have discussions that physical violence is not acceptable. For my 4 year old it has been a time for discussion of many abstract moral concepts: lying, stealing, bullying, exclusion: that emotional and intellectual violence is not right. A time for the development of life skills in my four year old. From setting the table, putting away her clothes and toys, preparing a meal, dressing oneself, organization of personal and family belongings. A time for the development of literacy and numeracy skills.

Reading this article, as well as Guldberg’s chapter on Childhood in historical perspective (2009), brought me to the following understandings. 

*Phillipe Aries in his book ‘Centuries of Childhood’ put forward the theory that in Medieval society there was no concept of childhood, that children were treated as miniature adults. Lloyd DeMause and his associates controversially theorise that over time parental response to children has gradually moved from abusive and cruel to nurturing and affectionate. Whilst I do agree and understand that society has changed significantly over the past two thousand years, as a mother I find it difficult to accept that parents, regardless of the time period they lived in, did not love and nurture their infants. Of all mammals, our children are born the most defenseless with the longest period of growth needed before separation from adult assistance is possible. We are born vulnerable and I believe a parents instinct is generally to protect and provide for our children from birth as they grow. Children are the future of every culture and where higher infant mortality rates exist, surely that must mean that surviving children are even more valued?  So I don’t believe that the concept or theory of ‘childhood’ and what a child experiences as ‘childhood’ is only tied to the value a parent attaches to their child. Rather, the value and status that the parent’s community attaches to the child as a member of that community, defines what childhood is for that community. Which helps explain why the childhood of a ten year old in Australia or Canada, is very different to the childhood experienced by a ten year old living in the slums in Calcutta or a refugee camp in the Sudan; why children now do not go off to work in appalling labour conditions at the age of 7, but are in school instead. Our community has attached a different value and status to children different to other communities. Does this mean we value our child more than them? I would be hesitant to say so.
“childhood itself, the social and cultural expectations of the child, and its roles and responsibilities or stages of legitimacy can be understood very differently according to any contextual worldview.” (Burke 2008)

*I found the concept that childhood could be defined as a state of being less literate than the adult population an interesting one, that does not cater for low levels of literacy in socio-economically depressed communities, indigenous communities and migrant communities. This would mean certain pockets and members of our society could be judged as ‘child-like’ in their ability to operate within a literate society. Following on from that could be the supposition that children who are more information literate than their adult counterparts have ‘surpassed’ aspects of childhood and are therefore operating as adults.

*Which leads to an interesting line of thought. What exactly is childhood in a 21st century literate society? What implication does that have for us as educational professionals and the skills and content we are developing and delivering within our schools? What does it mean to be literate in today’s adult world, and how do we go about developing that within our students? What literature is vital and important for children as they move through childhood? Do we still share nursery rhymes, fairy tales, folktales, fables, proverbs for the development of the understanding of imagination as well as traditionally understood concepts of morality? Do we read for the purpose of teaching morals, rules, behavior and curriculum or do we read to fire the imagination, for enjoyment, for the love of reading? How intrinsically should literature be entwined with childhood?

In an increasingly global world, is it possible to have ‘one common childhood’ definition based on a global perspective of childhood, or is it still more a culturally subjective term based on culture, ethnography, anthropology, gender, accessibility, class and geographical location(Burke, 2008)? Is it as Postman suggests that the information and communications revolution at the turn of the twenty-first century has delivered the end of childhood, since the relational distance between the adult and the child has been terminally altered by the spread and crucial adoption by children of information and communications technologies.”?
What are the literature implications for this?
Lots to think about! What a thought provoking way to start the next unit of study.

Burke, C. (2008). Theories of Childhood in Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society retrieved http://www.faqs.org/childhood/So-Th/Theories-of-Childhood.html.
Guldberg, H. (2009). Reclaiming childhood: freedom and play in an age of fear: Taylor & Francis.pp 46-56 Chapter 3 , Childhood in historical perspective

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