1.4 How is childhood understood?

In both Western societies and some sections of African societies, childhood is commonly considered to be a period of extended economic dependence, protected innocence and rapid learning through schooling. Childhood describes a period of life when young people are vulnerable both in the physical and mental sense, and hence ‘suffer’ from immaturity, a weak intellect and the inability to make decisions in their own best interests. Children are viewed as relatively helpless and dependent on adult protection and control.

By contrast, in many rural or otherwise traditional African societies, childhood is seen as a period of ‘training’ in preparation for a child’s entry into the harsh world of adulthood. Rather than a period of total dependency in which the child receives adult protection, childhood is understood in terms of obligations of support between generations. So, a child is always a child in relation to his or her parents who expect, and are traditionally entitled to, all forms of support from the child in times of need. Childhood in Africa also tends to be a period of internalised and rigorously enforced obedience to authority. The family is not only responsible for training and socialising children into adulthood, but is also entitled to determine what a child can and cannot do, and what processes need to be undertaken before they graduate to adulthood.

So views on the nature of childhood vary widely. In one place it will be seen as preferable to protect a 10-year-old from economic or domestic responsibilities. In another, such responsibilities are not only the norm, but are deemed beneficial for both the child and the family.

It is clear from this exploration of children and childhood, that these issues are more complex than we often assume. The way we think about them may differ significantly from the way people in other communities think about them. And the way we think will influence our attitudes towards children, and how we treat them. Some of these attitudes in East Africa derive from traditional cultures, while some are beginning to change as communities are increasingly exposed to different ideas.

Childhoods – tradition and change