Coping with mid-kid crises

May 19, 2000

Freud may not have had time for them, but five to 16-year-olds have much to tell us. Geoff Watts reports

Forget about the outbreak of moral panic over Section 28. The dominant factor in matters of child development and family structure is not an improbable recruitment drive on behalf of the nation's gays, but divorce and single parenting. So perhaps the findings of a couple of studies funded by the Economic and Social Research Council might make more informative reading for politicians than some of the high-profile propaganda they are being subjected to.

Both are among the 20 or so projects that make up a research programme titled "Children 5-16: Growing into the 21st Century". A number have already reported, and the rest will do so in the course of this year.

When you recall how often the behaviour of children in the 5-16 age group arouses angst, anger and tabloid headlines, it is puzzling to learn that they are under-represented in the social science research literature. Alan Prout, professor of sociology at the University of Stirling and director of the programme, shares this puzzlement. "I can only speculate," he said, "but I think there may be a legacy of Freudian thinking. Most of the interest has been in early infancy and then in adolescence. In between there is this latency period. According to Freud, nothing much is happening. So middle childhood has been seen as a rather uninteresting time. Also, a lot of childhood research has been on social problems, and the key ones are seen as being in infancy and in the approach to adulthood."

One of the features of the Children 5-16 programme is its emphasis on the importance of its subjects as (to use the jargon) social actors. "There's a strong tradition in social science research of seeing children only as responding to their circumstances," said Professor Prout. "Class, locality, ethnicity, family background and so on.

"This presents a picture of children as being passively shaped. The social actor idea puts children on the same footing as everyone else in social science theory. That is, although they're being shaped, they also do some of the shaping."

The projects making up the programme range from poverty and play to punishment and parental anxiety. Among them, Heather Joshi's work on children who do not live with both natural parents and Carol Smart's study of co-parenting after divorce form a natural pair.

The number of children who, through divorce or for other reasons, live with a single parent is on the increase. The question is how much this affects children. Using data from the Office of National Statistics and the National Child Development Study, Professor Joshi of the Institute of Education has studied children's numeracy, literacy and behaviour. Her findings suggest that the effects of lone parenting are not as dramatic as widely imagined and that the differences that exist owe more to social and economic disadvantage than to family structure.

Professor Joshi and her colleagues concluded that while trends in the social circumstances of children should be a cause for concern, this is less because of the absence of fathers per se than because of the lack of economic resources often endured by lone parent families.

"Rather than trying to affect family structure," their report concludes, "policy efforts might be directed more effectively at improving the education of mothers and reducing the burdens of financial hardship. Such an approach would be more likely to improve outcomes for children." Professor Smart's work at the University of Leeds is based on detailed interviews with a group of children in regular contact with parents who have split up and are living in separate households. "What these children had to say about family life turned out not to be so very different from what any group of children might say," Professor Smart said. "We do feel that our findings have something of a positive story to tell."

Not surprisingly, most children wanted both parents to play a continuing role in their lives, did not want to be forced to choose between them, and were keen to be involved in decision-making, including the manner in which their own time was divided between the two households.

Less predictable was the extent to which children accustomed from an early age to moving between households had come to regard it as routine. Some even saw positive benefits in having two of everything. Rosie, a nine-year-old, put it like this: "It must be a bit boring for children who don't have separated parents... I mean, go to school, go home, just do whatever you do and then it's the same every day. Whereas with me, I get to go to a different place half the week."

Professor Smart reported that while the children recognised that they did not possess as much knowledge as their parents, they did want to have their say in decisions. And they had many innovative ideas on solving problems that affected them. "There are reasons to be optimistic about how children can rise to the demands of post-divorce family life," Professor Smart concluded.

"Taken together," commented Professor Prout, "the two projects bear out the basic premise of the programme - that we have to take the idea that children are active in responding to, and influencing, their circumstances much more seriously than we've tended to in the past."

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