Childhood in crisis?
Childhood in crisis?

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Childhood then and now

Noticeably absent from my childhood was the whole idea of adult organised, extra-curricular activities and supervised play. Going to school was enough and I walked there on my own as soon as I started infant school. A couple of years later my younger sister came with me and it was my job to see she arrived safely. Children I know get ferried to school by their parents and many of them follow a packed programme of after-school activities, again enabled by parents. As a local and very personal snapshot, the differences I observe suggest that children today may have less unsupervised time and parents have more responsibility to organise and facilitate children’s out of school activities.

Activity: Childhood in the adult imagination

Timing: Allow about 1 hour

Read the commentary below and then answer the following questions:

  • What should childhood be like?
  • Who is responsible for the protection of children?

Concern over children and the protection of childhood has been a persistent refrain in recent government documents, legislative approaches and official reports in the UK. Every Child Matters [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (2004), the government Green Paper prompted by the death of Victoria Climbié in London four years earlier, opened up a dialogue aimed at improving services that focused on the needs of children, young people and families. At the heart of this initiative was the desire to promote ‘joined-up services’ to prevent the abuse, neglect and premature death of children through ill-treatment. In consultation with children and young people, Every Child Matters summarised their needs as requiring help and support to: be healthy; stay safe; enjoy and achieve; make a positive contribution; achieve economic well-being. These five aims formed the basis of the Children Act (2004), legislation focused upon developing more effective and accessible services for children and young people. A further outcome of the consultation process was the recognition that children need to be represented at a national level and their voices need to be heard. In March 2005 the UK government appointed Professor Al Aynsley-Green as England’s first Children’s Commissioner. The Commissioner’s main responsibility is to promote awareness of the views and interests of children. Children themselves indicated that they are concerned about bullying, personal safety and the pressure of educational work. The Commissioner has a brief to work independently of government in ways that complement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

A further voice to join the chorus of childhood in crisis came from The Children’s Society, a UK based charity who published the findings of their Good Childhood Inquiry in 2009 (Layard and Dunn, 2009).  The inquiry aimed to examine society’s understanding of childhood for the twenty-first century in order to improve relationships with children. One part of the study included an independent survey commissioned to explore adult perspectives on children and childhood (The Children’s Society, 2007). Key findings of the survey critically comment on the place of play and the role of consumption in children’s lives. Despite the recognition that having friends and being able to spend time with them was regarded as central to a good childhood, forty-three per cent of 1148 adults said that children should not be allowed out with friends until they were 14. Wanting children to have their freedom appears to be equally matched by the fear of letting them move freely outside the home without adult supervision. A pessimistic picture also emerges in relation to consumerism and material culture. Of the 1255 people surveyed, nine out of ten felt that children are more materialistic now than in previous generations and that advertising at Christmas puts pressure on parents to spend more than they can afford. In a culture where the children’s market is estimated to be worth £30bn a year, Bob Reitemeier, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, called for adults to take stock, ‘Unless we question our own behaviour we risk creating a generation who are left unfulfilled through chasing unattainable lifestyles’ (BBC News 24, 2008). A majority of the sample also agreed that children’s television and computer time should be restricted, and that violent video games make children more violent. Other contributors to the childhood debate include the Primary Review’s Community Soundings (2007), an independent inquiry into the condition and future of primary education in England. Summarising the findings of 87 regionally based witness sessions, authors Alexander and Hargreaves note:

we were frequently told children are under intense and perhaps excessive pressure from the policy-driven demands of their schools and the commercially-driven values of the wider society; that family life and community are breaking down; that there is a pervasive loss of respect and empathy both within and between generations; that life outside the school gates is increasingly insecure and dangerous; that the wider world is changing, radpidly and in ways which it is not always easy to comprehend …

(Alexander and Hargreaves, 2007, p. 1)

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