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Home comforts?

Updated Tuesday, 29th April 2008

Given the pressures of life in modern Britain and the stressors they face outside the home, can family life provide children with a haven? Helen Carr asks what makes a house a home?

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A sense of displacement and a strong feeling for many children is that they have no real permanent and reliable home. This does not mean literally moving from place to place - although, for some, this is the case - but the home, which should be a focal point of family life, can instead feel like temporary accommodation: almost like a hostel. A lack of substantial, secure relationships between children and parents indicates a vacuum at home – the place where many children live may seem little more than a B&B, merely a roof over their heads, neither a haven to which they can retreat and recharge their batteries; nor a place where they will always find warmth, security and unconditional positive regard; a place where they will always find someone on their side.

For many families, the focus is outside the home: at work. Parents may find themselves working long hours without pausing to think of the impact this lifestyle has on their children. For children in such families, their house may not feel like a home. A sense of permanence is not primarily a question of physical location, but people. All family relationships are complex, with many threatening impermanence and danger rather than offering security and stability, but we need to acknowledge that disturbances, conflict and unpredictability at home have a direct and serious impact on performance at school, academic and social. This is not, directly, a socio-economic circumstance, but rather how these circumstances play out within the family.

All families face problems, but while some children and parents seem to be able to rationalise what is happening to them, and try to communicate with each other to resolve issues; others will, instead, internalise and isolate, leading to rage, sadness, frustration and resentment. These reactions will invariably lead in turn to a dislocation of relationships, and a sense of being 'out of place'. Those who survive the school system and achieve success are not there as a direct result of class, money or inheritance, but because of the stability and predictability that implies no emotional or physical displacements.

Just as school demonstrates a society that functions by a set of agreed behaviour and rules, so too does the home. If home life is characterised by neglect, the children may experience their parents' attention being entirely focused on each other, with children feeling that they are just incidental components, 'extras' on the sidelines of their parents' dramas. If, as a result, children's emotional needs are not met by their parents, children are less likely to develop strong senses of their own and other's feelings.

This dislocation from their own feelings and lack of empathy for the feelings of others can result in bullying and being bullied. The competitive nature of our society, reflected in schools and schooling, means that perceived weaknesses can be exploited for personal gain, and this pattern can be seen as repeated theme in some homes. Small wonder that by the age of seven, children in such circumstances become 'vulnerable' in some way and thus 'targets' of one sort or another; or conversely turn to violence to achieve their aims. For many, school can be an unpleasant and meaningless experience, the physical, social and academic environment unattractive and unappealing. And if their experience of the home is as unpleasant and meaningless unattractive and unappealing as school, where can a child find the emotional security and stability they need?

Since the middle of the last century, the political and public administration agenda has been to solve society's 'problems' by working harder at integrating 'problem families' into existing institutional structures of education, health and social services. The 'situation' of 'problem' families has been characterised by successive governments as the common impact of social problems; problems related to the labour market; problems related to their position as a 'minority' (if they are black or Asian, for example) and problems related to their relationship and interaction with other groups in society. Basically, their lifestyles have been seen as the problem. But is this really where the problem lies? Or is it a red herring? Is disproportional blame being directed at the family, when government policies and practice should shoulder some of the responsibility?

In December 2007 Ed Balls, the government's Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, has just announced a billion pound, ten year 'Children's Plan' for supporting families. The plan includes proposals to extend free childcare to 20,000 two year-olds in disadvantaged areas. A focus of current government policy is on families where parents are seen as needing help to raise their children well. A new National Academy for Parenting Practitioners has been set up to train a workforce 'to enable parents to deal with day to day challenges and give their children the best possible start in life'.

Some see this sort of direct intervention in families' lives as one step too far, undermining the autonomy and responsibility of families, while others see it as a long-overdue investment in children's futures. Time will tell whether this new priority for direct action will indeed lead to more harmonious and child-centred family lives, improving children's lived experiences and lifetime outcomes, or whether it will further erode the sense of 'home' that is already so fragile in many households.

Further reading

Youth Cultures
Edited by Verid Amit-Talai and Helena Wulff, Routledge

Symbolic Wounds
Burno Bettleheim, Glencoe III

Why Humans have Cultures
Michael Carrithers, OUP

The Predicament of Culture
James Clifford, Cambridge Harvard Press

The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State
Fredrich Engels

Deschooling Society
Ivan Illich, Marion Boyars Publishers

Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective
Roger M. Keesing and Andrew J. Strathern, Harcourt and Brace

Social Anthropology in Perspective: The Relevance of Social Anthropology
Ioan Lewis, Cambridge University Press

Understanding Childhood: an interdisciplinary approach
Edited by Martin Woodhead and Heather Montgomery, John Wiley and Sons
The course book for the Open University Childhood course

Sex, Gender and Society
Ann Oakley, Ashgate Publishing

Managing Reproductive Life: Cross Cultural themes in Fertlity and Sexuality
Edited by Soraya Tremayne, Berghahn

 

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