|Contesting Childhood by Michael G. Wyness (2000)
London and New York: Falmer Press.Pages 161.
Reviewed by Jerrold L. Kachur
Childhood is in crisis. Government policy-makers in Western countries have increased their interest in “child-care.” Social science researchers have identified “children at risk.” Parents confront issues of “accountability” and “blame.” Child-care professionals (e.g. teachers, nurses, and social workers) now implement preventive approaches to deal with illiteracy, sexual abuse, aggression and bullying. Furthermore western and welfarist conceptions of “childhood” assume a single unambiguous prescription based on protection and that the welfare model of “the family” can be exported to non-Westerners. However, this model faces internal contradictions from a liberal rights model based on participation. This export is also being attacked at home, restructured according to the logic of markets and systems of accountability. Each action appears to threaten the unconditional nature of adult responsibility and authority that has arisen around the contested position of children: traumatized children need to be protected; children are treated as reliable witnesses; and, increasingly, children act responsible legal subjects.
Within this social flux, Wyness argues, “adults working with children are being forced to take more notice of what children do and who they are in public as well as private matters. This in turn generates different and sometimes unexpected relations between adults and children. In short, these relations encourage us to think about the institution of childhood in more contested terms” (p. 136). While traditional approaches justify school actions on children as preparation for future moral, social, political and economic positions in society (as citizens in waiting), he states there is some scope for “at least rethinking the ontological status of children as citizens rather than trainees” (p. 129). In the potential re-negotiation of the status boundary between pupil and teacher, child and adult, there is no reason to think that improving children’s access to knowledge on moral, sexual and political issues with undermine the authority of adults.
Thus, Wyness identifies a central theme of public perception, social policy prescription and social scientific research as the tendency to target the family and parent as responsible agent. However, this tendency takes an institutional form complicit with hegemonic notions of nature, biology, and social need that endorse the power of family and, usually, at the expense of other institutions that have claims on the child’s welfare. Further to his point: the trend towards protectionism and control has produced an inverse relationship: “the more we talk about children, the less likely children themselves seem to be part of these dialogues” (p. 29).
Wyness challenges those who view children as subordinate and dependent, as passive recipients of processes of socialization, and as having their social position determined by the actions of legitimate adult authority figures (e.g. parents and teachers). While family sociologists and psychologists reflect on the status of their data, their subjects and their reappraisal of the concept of socialization, Wyness points out that “children who were either ignored or come into view as ‘necessarily’ and ‘naturally’ incompetent are now seen in more contested terms as both socially exploited and phenomenologically agentic” (p. 28).
In a contrary position, he incorporates children as competent social actors who are tapping into global trends and addressing children as people who have the right to be informed. Wyness revisits philosophical issues and presents a weak social constructivist perspective. He re-conceptualizes childhood within the academy and reflects on how the discourse informs the broader political and social contexts which children inhabit. Scholarly challenges to conventional conceptual and methodological frameworks of “socialization” and “development” thus play an important part in the reconstitution of childhood.
He conceives two interrelated models: one which does not “deny the existence of a basic but unspecified notion of separateness between adult and child which may be expressed in terms of status or social position”; another based on “how this difference is played out between children and adults, the particular form that this concept takes as a conception of childhood, is a product of how we view children from our own peculiar cultural and social vantage points” (p. 2). He locates our understandings of childhood within a social, political and cultural context and as implying “we can talk of different, potentially competing conceptions of childhood” (p. 2). “Our viewpoint” is the “adult perspective.” He situates children’s positions within shifting networks and responsibilities that characterize late modern society and focusses on the child as a potentially competent agent.
He explores Great Britain primarily and West European and North American countries secondarily. Child-care, he specifies, has taken two different directions in schools and households. The private realm of family life has been brought within the public domain and under closer public scrutiny. Parents are targeted as responsible agents and this has the dual effect of strengthening and enervating their positions. Responsibility implies a set of externally defined obligations which means that demands on them for both primary socialization and responsibility for their children’s conduct in school. However, presumptions of non-intervention and “parental choice” appear to offer a degree of power and autonomy with respect to managing their children’s development.
Education reform, on the other hand, has “privatized” the public realm of schooling and shifted a bundle of individual rights to parents and away from the educational establishment. Child workers such as teachers share an increased externally-defined “professional accountability” environment. While parents are empowered as “consumers,” professionals generate defensive strategies in response to “need to know” imperatives of parents and the state.
Children find themselves within the above matrix and are increasingly in the position of social actor. In household contexts, especially, children have been brought into the foreground of policy and have been granted limited autonomy, especially related to issues social and moral security
The relationship between policy reform and childhood follows change in broader society – recent child-care and education reform “might be said to strengthen the socializing powers of adults over children” (p. 3). Legislative change suggests political and institutional attempts to reconstruct “traditional” models of childhood. He rejects, however, the role of policy as “a form of moral rescue” for the “schooling and the protection of children” (p. 3). He emphasizes morally unclear and ambiguous relations generated through policy reform between adults and children. He challenges the view that children are “out of position” (p. 5) and no longer know or accept their place.
Wyness links the broad conceptions of childhood as they relate to policy, research, and professional practice. Starting with the household, he focusses on the case of child sexual abuse. He identifies two themes, protection and socialization.
Child-protection is often conflated with child-welfare and child-care. The impetus to protect children by means of various forms of safe enclosure can now be mediated through the consultation of children themselves. For example, the Child Act 1989 encourages professionals to consult with children about securing their welfare. However, there are limited opportunities for more equitable relations between children and adults and few alternatives to the “top down” approach are evident.
Child-socialization theory has paradigmatic status within theory and practice. It provides the scientific endorsement of the relationship between parent and child as both natural and biological, and with assumptions extending to teachers. Delinquency is based on the absence of early maternal attachments and trust structures adult expectations of child development. Abuse is pathologized as “stranger danger”; yet, most abuse takes place in the home. “In effect, the framing the problem of sexual abuse in terms of protection and socialization does two things: it directs state intervention towards certain sectors of society and it also serves to highlight the ‘normality’ of the nuclear family and the positions of the adult population in relation to children” (p. 60). However, he writes, the drive to prevention (e.g. Child Abuse Prevention Programs: CAPP) has given children and child workers the opportunity to undermine the implicit paternalism with the child protection systems. Paternalism and childhood vulnerability are confronted by the competent (e.g. used to testify) and challenging child (e.g. programs designed to empower) and childhood abuse prevention programs assume degrees of childhood competence whilst challenging the notion of the innocent child. By implication children are being encouraged to be more active in preventing and identifying child abuse.
Outside household contexts and in educational programs and policies, there is a sharper focus on conflicting conceptions. The stated aim of making the education system more accountable to the individual consumer does not sit easily with the imposition of a centrally determined national curriculum. Except in the area of special education needs, the child does not figure within these changes as an active social agent. While a few affluent children have had their role enhanced as consumers and better off schools are better positioned for social selection, the majority of professionals and “consumers” are “more deeply implicated within a culture of blame and control which puts them under pressure to account for their child work” (p. 103).
From the pupil’s perspective, there is a formal absence of the child in localized decision-making and there is a marginal position for pupils at the school and community level of decision-making. Evident also is policy’s effect on intensifying the work that children do through an increase in classroom assessment and a much stronger emphasis on schoolwork that children do at home (e.g. 1997 White Paper). Joint home-school programs tie parents more closely to educational ventures and attenuate the child’s time and play. Education policy clearly defines children as ontologically absent in social and political terms and demonstrates “that children are still the property of adults” (p. 104).
Wyness reviews in detail the educational narratives associated with education reform and initiatives and identifies the potential for children to act as social agents. He looks at and finds many issues related closely to citizenship and that “children have degree of social and moral competence.”
First, he looks at children as peacemakers and finds that peer mediation may be strengthening the personal and collective position of those children on the cultural margins. Second, he looks at children as knowledgeable. He focusses on sex education and finds that initiatives for viewing children as competent agents have developed the most in areas that have been marginalized in the curriculum. Finally, he looks at children as political agents and citizenship education as contested. Values have shifted toward responsibility, accountability and blame and schools are held as responsible agents for moral and civic failures. However, schools are attempting to mediate strong counter-cultural pressures through sex education and citizenship education. An emphasis on the children’s right to make informed choices and to participate in areas that are largely the province of adults in authority have encouraged children to take more responsibility for supervision and maintaining order as “more active social agents.”
The book is well crafted and edited. Graduate students from a wide range of disciplines and fields from education and nursing to human ecology and political science will find the substantive information valuable and the argument easy to follow. Wyness insightfully and originally connects broad policy issues to childhood studies and professional practice. The book’s scholarly appeal crosses many boundaries and is a refreshing challenge to commonly held assumptions. Secondary sources are extensive and supplemented with a restricted – yet detailed - use of primary policy and program documents. Generalization beyond the British experience to other policy contexts may be limited. Nevertheless, Wyness identifies a social and discourse dynamic that resonates for current Canadian and American childhood policy contexts and child-care practices. However, it is uncertain whether this particular study has the required documentary and analytical support to draw many conclusions outside of the Anglo-American situation. Notwithstanding the above minor weaknesses, the significant contribution of the book is at the social theoretical and methodological levels. Wyness offers a refreshing approach to policy analysis; a reframing of liberationist versus protectionist debates; a conception and reconstruction of childhood as an ontologically basis for analysis; and a sensible approach to a social constructivist research into the contested conceptions of childhood.
- Florida 2005