Galvanizing cultural constructs: childhoods

Not long ago in a research meeting, there was some discussion around how to define phases of life to facilitate quantitative analyses. As far as the medical and biological researchers were concerned, this was a no-brainer. To them, terms like infancy – early childhood – adolescence were obviously determined by biologically defined developmental phases. You won’t be surprised to hear that the social scientists did not agree.

The subject of childhood, and the nature of relationships between adults and children have struck me as particularly galvanizing cultural notions. The unquestioned assumptions created by these cultural constructs affect how research is carried out, the hypotheses scientists are willing and likely to explore, and public policies set in place.

One example I have observed relates to the different assumptions about early child education in France and Britain. In France, there is a strong emphasis on infants and very young children being sent as early as possible to a child care setting, like a crèche or childminder. Furthermore, the French education system has a well developed nationwide public kindergarten program, where children start school at the age of three, and sometimes even earlier. In conversation, certainly among the white middle class, exposing children to these institutions is considered to be of great benefit to their socialisation and important for optimal child development. By contrast, in the UK, the idea of sending a three year old to school and then to after-school care from 8am till 6pm (completely ‘normal’ in France) is greeted with horror by the white middle class. Instead, the home and the nurturing familial contact with a parent (inevitably a mother) is seen as the best environment for small children, and for as long as possible. It seems important to start involving children in group activities but just a little at a time. These differences are highlighted by the policies in each country. In France, child care is heavily subsidised, with a network of crèches and childminders endorsed and supervised by the local authority, and a school curriculum from the age of three. In the UK, nurseries are often privately run, with some subsidies, and many children will have only attended part-time child care until school starts at around four to five years of age.

Personally, I have no particular view that one approach is better than the other, the point I am making is rather that these deeply set assumptions about ‘what is best’ for kids go unquestioned. I have observed rather affective responses by each cultural group if you suggest that elsewhere the same assumptions don’t prevail. Issues about ‘what is best for children’ are galvanizing, and lead to strong reactions: doing anything other than what is culturally accepted is in fact considered harmful and dangerous to the children.

I have heard French parents chastise a mother who revealed that her baby slept with her in the same bed at night. This was deemed highly dangerous (she was told she could crush the baby, plus concerns about cot death etc), and also detrimental to the baby’s learning about autonomy and their relationship with their mother. When it was pointed out that in traditional societies co-sleeping was deemed perfectly normal, and allowed mothers to sleep while feeding their babies at night, this was dismissed as giving examples of barbaric practices from another era. I have also observed non-French parents living in France exclude themselves from French social gatherings because the time at which French families eat their dinners (around 8pm) and put their children to bed is considered ‘not good for the children’s routines’.

Both historical and cross-cultural perspectives on children’s roles in society suggest that “childhood does not exist in a finite and identifiable form” (James et al 1999). Throughout the lifecourse, individuals may be seen as occupying liminal states, traversing socially constructed roles at fixed points in time (a 7 year old child can be a school child, a daughter, a patient, a customer, all in the duration of one day), but also moving in and out of new identities as time passes (leaving primary school, before or after a divorce…). As such, the life stages we recognise, and to which we attribute modern social and scientific characteristics based on developmental psychology and medical science, are relatively recent constructs.

In a chapter on the subject of childhood and child rearing, Jared Diamond demonstrates the variety of approaches towards children in traditional tribal societies, which exemplify ways in which humans have lived for most of our species’ existence. He describes that ideas around personhood, how a child is deemed to be an autonomous individual making their own choices, sometimes harmful ones, is a central tenet to some smaller cultural groups. And how allo-parenthood, parenting delivered by a wider network of individuals, leads to a diversity of relationships between children and the adults in their entourage (Diamond 2013).

Ariès’ historical perspective of childhoods in Western Europe based on the depiction of children in art suggests that childhood did not exist as a socially accepted entity until the 17th century, at which point children entered into popular culture and colloquial vocabulary (Ariès 1975). Rousseau introduced the idea of childhood as a separate state to that of adulthood in 1762, where he described children as being capable of sensitive and motivated thoughts. He underlined the importance of childhood in moulding and forming the future adult, and his ideas allowed for a veritable space for childhood in both temporal and social terms (Rousseau 1961). In the early 1900s, based on her work with different populations of children, Maria Montessori developed the idea of children as having ‘absorbent minds’ (Montessori 1995), and classified their development into six sensitive periods. She described the hierarchical laying-down of sensorial functions. Her educational methods oriented children towards exploration and coordinated manipulation “with sensory activity itself lay(ing) the foundations upon which the child constructs himself, mind and body, as an increasingly efficient, free and autonomous being” (Gettman p. xi).

Many of us have strong views about what we want for our children, and how to facilitate their early lives to become increasingly autonomous people. It is easily forgotten that these ideas are fundamentally sociocultural, and variable within the social structure and between cultures. You’ll notice, true to my nature as a researcher, I offer no solution to the question on how to divide up life phases when doing quantitative analyses. Quite the reverse, I ask more questions. Whatever decisions we make as researchers, or when interacting with children, being mindful of these galvanizing cultural assumptions will improve our research questions and analyses.

References

Ariès, P. (1975). L’enfant et la vie familiale sous l’ancien régime. Paris, Editions du Seuil.

Diamond, J. (2013) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? London, Penguin.

Foner, A. and D. Kertzer (1978) “Transitions Over the Life Course: Lessons from Age-Set Societies.” American Journal of Sociology 83(5): 1081-1104.

Gettman D. (1987) Basic Montessori. New York, St. Martin’s Press Inc.

James, A. Jenks, C. and Prout, (1999) Theorising childhood. Cambridge: Polity press.

Montessori, M. (1995) The absorbent mind. Washington D.C., Henry Holt and Co.

Rousseau, J.-J. (1961) Émile ou De l’éducation (1762). Paris, Garnier.

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