THE PLACE of children in late 20th-century society seems dangerously confused. We are told to treat them as individuals capable of autonomous action, but at the same time there are compelling arguments for more surveillance and regulation of youngsters.
The idea that children are active agents, affecting as well as being affected by the world around them, is a new approach that is central to a national research programme launched this week.
The Economic and Social Research Council's Children 5-16 project marks a shift away from treating children as outcomes of social processes and emphasises their participation in them.
The programme director, Alan Prout from Hull University, said this changes the whole research methodology for investigating childhood. "Rapid social and cultural change has focused anxieties on the future of society and, in particular, on children as the next generation of adults. When childhood is made to bear the weight of generalised social anxiety, discussion tends to turn around sometimes simplistic calls for the return of traditional values and lifestyles in children."
There may be much in this, but if the clock does not stop for society, it cannot stop for children. If society is changing, childhood is changing too, Dr Prout said.
Some early findings to emerge from his research highlight the educational impact on children of being brought up in disrupted families. Analysis of data from a national sample of 2,000 children shows that children living with both natural parents had better scores on reading, maths and emotional adjustment than those living with a lone parent or step family. The differences were largely, although not entirely, accounted for by the socioeconomic disadvantages of disrupted families.
Dr Prout said that until now, little research had focused on how children have been affected by social and family change and on how children experience and give meaning to contemporary social life. However, children's perspectives were being taken seriously by Britain's policy makers, he said.
Prime Minister Tony Blair recently drew attention to the influence of children on his thinking. In one instance, he revealed that a letter from a Belfast child had strengthened his determination to pursue a peace initiative in Northern Ireland. He has also referred to the influence his children have had on his ideas about the global environment.
But contradictory elements remain. Although there is growing international interest in the idea of children's rights, policy debate in this country is often couched in terms of welfare at the household level. This tends to downplay the perspectives of children themselves, Dr Prout said.
"UK policy, unlike in many other European countries, most often focuses on children when parental responsibility fails. The assumption underpinning social policy is that unless their welfare is threatened, children are primarily the responsibility of their parents."
Dr Prout stressed that the research programme would take a holistic view of children. Rather than splitting their lives into separate institutional compartments, children would be the focus of the research and the variations in their experiences examined carefully.
Children 5-16: Growing into the 21st Century is funded by a Pounds 2.9 million ESRC grant. It comprises 22 linked research projects in universities around Britain examining different aspects of children's lives. The director is Alan Prout of Hull University's Centre for the Social Study of Childhood.
The project has a website at http://www.esrc.ac.uk/ curprog.html.