Boys and girls come out to play

Children's Childhoods Observed and Experienced
February 24, 1995

This volume is about children's lives and is primarily aimed at sociologists. As such it represents a major step forward. For most of its history, sociology has largely ignored pre-teen children. Even recent attempts to rectify this have been preoccupied with childhood rather than children. They have performed a useful task in challenging adults' preconceptions, but children themselves remained invisible and inaudible. This text, however, does seek, with some success, to represent children's experiences - mainly by presenting theoretical analyses or by reporting on qualitative research using children's writings or interviews with children.

Edited books risk incoherence and certainly a wide range of loosely connected topics are covered here. These include children's rights, work (paid and unpaid), use of space and conversations about television, home and schoolwork. It is hard to imagine a book on adults that would be published on a similar string of themes and this broad sweep signifies the infant status of the sociology of children. There might not be enough material available to fill a more focused book.

The problem of diversity is partly overcome by the editor's lengthy introductory chapter, which thoughtfully explains the context of children's studies and makes links between the substance and methods used in the different chapters. This stimulating overview is somewhat marred by a stereotyped dismissal of developmental psychology. Admittedly much child psychology has been arid, artificial and individualistic in the way suggested, but critical, innovative and interactive approaches have emerged in the past 20 years that run counter to the image given here. There is also no acknowledgement that sociology bears some guilt for leaving the field clear to its more individualistic sister discipline. (Note: this reviewer is neither a psychologist, nor a sociologist.) The general or professional reader is not likely to be very concerned with this academic introspection and rivalry but will wish to judge the book according to how much it helps us adults to understand children better. The language of the book makes it clear that children themselves are not expected to read it. Sometimes points are made as a corrective to sociological theory that come as no surprise to anyone familiar with children - for example, that they play an important role in family life; that they are not passive recipients of adult input; and that boys and girls have different expectations and aspirations for their future families.

Sadly, in view of its intentions, the best parts of the book are still those that examine and challenge adult perceptions of children and attitudes towards them, whereas most of those that analyse what children themselves have said or done are often trivial in their conclusions. The book is also preoccupied with child-adult relationships and, apart from the occasional mention of siblings, almost no attention is given to child-child relationships. No recognition is given to the pioneering work of the Opies in this respect, which culminated in a small gem of a book about playground activities, jokes and songs (The People in the Playground, 1993).

Oakley provides a characteristically clear and trenchant comparison of the position of women and children in both sociological thinking and in society. BerryMayall herself provides an interesting comparison of power relationships and children's degree of choice at home and school, although she fails to take account of significant variations within those settings. Not all children feel they have ample opportunities to negotiate decisions with parents in the way suggested.

The book ends with a provocative but intriguing claim from Oldman that children represent a social class that is being economically exploited by adults. In a subtle argument, he refers to the ways in which adults may benefit financially and otherwise from work with children that diminishes rather than enhances the children's ability to optimise their own human capital. As examples, he cites the growth of child protection systems and the way in which many schools restrict the scope for individual development. Where academics studying these relationships fit into the picture he does not say, but that could presumably represent a further level of parasitism. This illustrates how Oldman fails to differentiate between exploitative and non-exploitative work related to children, which would undermine his argument that all children in all circumstances can be regarded as a separate class.

One of the best empirical chapters is Buckingham's, which effectively uses children's quotes to show that they are not pawns of television, as tends to be suggested in discussion of (negative) media influences. Indeed children's descriptions show how they exercise much skill and acumen -in responding to and criticising programmes and in manipulating parents so they get to watch what they want.

More generally, an important theme of the book is that children have been undervalued not just in the social sciences but in everyday life. Most of the chapters embody an explicit or implicit commitment to enabling children's wishes and ideas to carry much more weight. Lansdown's chapter on children's rights provides a lucid overview of different kinds of right and notes the contrast between the attention to rights in the Children Act 1989 and their almost complete absence in other legislation affecting children's education, health and housing. Here and elsewhere adults are rightly asked to re-examine their presumptions about children's incompetence or vulnerability, which can sometimes be used to rationalise the exclusion or control of children for the benefit or convenience of adults.

Malcolm Hill is at the Centre for the Study of the Child and Society, University of Glasgow.

Children's Childhoods Observed and Experienced

Editor - Berry Mayall
ISBN - 0 7507 0369 5 and 0370 9
Publisher - Falmer Press
Price - £36.00 and £13.95
Pages - 184pp

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