Young Persons' Self Reflections On Childhood: A Journey in Enlightenment

There seems to be a great deal of contradiction and variation in society as to the specific rights of young people, such as; the age of consent for sex, ages of accountability, and the differing legal ages applied to the purchase of various goods. Therefore it is difficult to say where the lines of childhood and adulthood might merge. It is now well established that children have the right to be heard, as many laws have been implemented in recent years to protect the rights of children. Such as, the Children Act of 1989, the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the, ‘Gillick competence’ 1986, which established children under the age of 16 were able to consent to medical treatment without parental knowledge or consent if deemed competent enough to make that decision.

There is not one specific transitional process that launches young people into adulthood; however it is the confusion about this important process that requires reflection and understanding from those who are at the centre of it. As Alderson (2004, p101) describes, 'It is as if we put children into a small glass cage called childhood, and then examine how they perform within the cage's restriction, instead of looking critically at the cage itself, its causes and effects.' It is therefore the young people themselves that are the best source of information through their narratives and constructions of childhood, 'Children are the best resource for understanding childhood' (Corsaro, 1997:103). There are problems that exist in recognising young people as 'knowing subjects' and acknowledging their competence with the need to ensure their protection. The understanding of children's perspectives is important as these will differ from the accounts that are based on what adults believe children think. As Harding (1996) says, 'actual individual children and their lives, feelings and experiences are one thing, while (adult) concepts, constructions, representations, perceptions, attitudes, indeed stereotypes, concerning childhood (and its different-ness) are another.'

There has been much media interest and policy decisions made which have been centred on and around children and young people, particularly during this century (Narvanen & Nasman, 2004, Lloyd-Smith, M. and Tarr, J. 2000). It would be expected that from this we would be getting greater understanding and clarity, however it seems to have further merged the boundaries and confused the categories. The basic definition and category of childhood has not been established or even agreed, and the processes that shape children in preparation for adulthood are not defined. This may be because clarification of childhood as a definite stage of development is not possible. (Hallet, C & Prout, A. 2003). This research is primarily concentrating on the personal constructs and individual accounts of young people's views and reflections on their own childhood, if indeed that is how they choose to define them. The research investigates how children perceive and construct their place within society, because as adults we seem to construct childhood as a separate and distinctive entity to adulthood (James & Prout 1997). Yet as Prout (2003) states, there is also the emergence of recognition that children and adults are bound by a mutual interdependence, and we are beginning to appreciate the contribution that children make in both the social and economic areas, 'Whatever the level of investment society makes, without the active participation of children there will be no social future.' (Prout, 2003. P20). Social Constructionism

Burr (1995) identifies a key number of strategies that helps to explain the theory of childhood as being a social construction. Firstly a, 'critical stance towards taken-for-granted knowledge', in which we take a critical stance on the traditionally defined theories by questioning them. Secondly, 'Historical and cultural specificity', meaning we need to make sense of current experience and issues by using social, historical and cultural relativity. Thirdly that 'knowledge is sustained by social processes'; explains the way in which we view the world is shaped by meanings we attach to the interactions between the people we encounter. Lastly that 'knowledge and social action go together', this perspective allows us to look at accountability and who is ultimately responsible for the perception, society or the individual. Prout, (2003), asserts that the most adequate way of representing childhood is by viewing young people as social persons, he does this in order to understand their positions from within contemporary society. Structuring of the childhood experience is represented in 'stages and scripts' that are responsible for generating the essential questions about their environments.

One stage of life is childhood, and we see it as a natural stage of development. It is however not simply a biological stage of development, but an emergence of attitudes, beliefs and values that surround the individual child at particular points in time. As such it can be defined as a fluid social category, this is not fixed and it is subject to the changing values, definitions and expectations we have within society and most importantly the individual perceptions and internalisations young people make of these societal boundaries (Valentine, 2000). It is not only that there is internal confusion created by the changing hormonal balances, but also various other internal conflicts which are a direct reflection of the intricate dimensions in the process of 'growing up'. Narvanen & Nasman (2004) discuss childhood as a social construction in relation to the generational perspective in which, " Children and teenagers are also seen as actors who interpret their world, reflect, and create meaning; they are actors involved in constructing their own lives and influencing their own conditions...............That is, the meaning of 'child' as a social position is understood in relation to the other positions in relation to which it is defined - those of parent and adult. Therefore the focus is on the construction of these relationships and how the people in those positions relate to one another," (Narvanen & Nasman, 2004, pp.72) It is the social conditions that surround a young person in society that are related to the way adulthood is perceived by society; conversely this position is related to the treatment of young people, (Young, 1995: 121). The Social Construction of Childhood

Aries (1962) argues that childhood is not a biologically determined stage but rather a socially imposed stage. He defined childhood as a category that was applied as a concept in society during the 16th Century, prior to that they were seen as being small adults who were capable of, and indeed made to participate fully in adult life. Aries' (1962) view is that childhood is a new concept that did not exist within the medieval period. Childhood he claims began in the 16th and 17th centuries in the upper classes, the concept then gained strength until it permeated all levels of society however it was not until later on in the 19th and early 20th century that it was accepted by the lower classes. On the emergence of the institution of childhood, the young people's situation within society began to change, they were 'named' children and innocence was born. Children began to be protected from the reality of the world and its events The setting of legal ages for consents, for sex, the sale of alcohol, the statutory attendance of schools and voting rights, thus making age the prominent marker and focus for maturity, (Hewstone, Wolfgang and Stephenson, 1996). In another theory, Muller's (1973) conception of childhood is structured using four phases that are demarcated by trends in birth and death rates. Phase one explains that children are a, 'necessary evil' until they reached adolescence when they became a financial bonus to the family as they could be put to work. In phase two children became, 'productive workers', who were 'cheap and plentiful' and could do the jobs which adults could not, like crawling under machines to fix them to. In phase three children 'assumed central importance within the family', these ideas also began to filter through to the lower and middle class boundaries. Phase four explains that society is 'child centred' where by the main goal of society is the care, respect and understanding of the child's needs rather than those of the parents (Lambert, 1996). These are marked by the 1959 United Nation's Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and the National Children's Bureau publications on Child Protection Policies and Guidelines For Research. As the exposure to different social groupings affects and shapes 'childhood' so to does the interactions of peers and other members of the groups, both positive and negative in nature. Berger and Luckmann (1967) state that the social construction of childhood expressed by a young person will be that daily realities will exist outside of them and operate independently of the young person, there by reflecting the view that they are not in control of their world, and merely just a player in the grander scheme of things. How young people relate to each other and different members of society requires the ongoing negotiation of these social constructs. Social constructionism implies that the knowing is linked to doing and that the interaction between understanding and social action is symbiotic (Burr 1995). How we talk and the language that is used is a basis for our thoughts, actions and how we think (Burr 1995: Gergen and Gergen, 2003; Potter and Wetherell, 1987).

There is much debate on the construct of childhood; James & Prout (1997) claim that it is, 'cultures which children construct for and between themselves', where as Hendrick (1990) cites it as being in opposition and that, 'childhood - both the institution and the construction of - was composed by adults.' (James & Prout, 1997, pp34). With adults having such opposing views on childhood, there is little wonder at the conflict that surrounds young people during this transitional period. Added into this there is then the societal perception of childhood and adulthood. In society young people are being judged on maturity by various age related categories, restrictions and issues; for example at sixteen you can have sex, get married (with permission), have a baby, be able to smoke, and yet you have to wait a further two years until you are allowed to drink or be allowed to vote. It is therefore important to focus on the young person's relationship with the social world and examine the complex sets of social processes that they go through to become constructed as 'children' while other people are constructed as 'adults'. To define the social construction of childhood we must first explore the many social areas that children are exposed to, which may influence and enrich their worlds. Such areas as, home, school, clubs, friendships, hobbies, and groups all provide diverse influences on young people and help shape how they construct experiences into scripts that make sense to them. Identity

There have been many studies concentrating on the development and the origins of self and identity but these have tended to focus in on the 'personal-self', and largely neglected has been the 'social- self', (Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934). It could be that there are as Lloyd-Smith and Tarr (2000) point out, some powerful social and cultural constraints that act as the boundaries and guidelines of childhood, and they view childhood as specifically being a social construction. A social construction that shapes us as unique individuals, through a process of socialization, which in turn allows us to feel part of the community. Social identity is, "therefore, complex, fragmentary and achieved by taking up discursively constructed subject position - as 'adult', 'child'," (Valentine 2000, p265).

It is also assumed that a young person's conceptualisations of their identities are likely to be quite limited, (Bennett 2004) and that in particular 'subjective identification' with social groups may be quite a late achievement, (Bennett et al., 1998). Identity formation of young children, it is claimed, develops through a process where by they adopt an, 'ideological stance juxtaposed to that of their parents', (Knafo & Schwartz, 2004). There are claims that only two processes that are central to identity formation, exploration and commitment. Exploration, 'entails seeking out, elaborating, and utilizing potential identity alternatives', and commitment, 'entails the decision to accept particular alternatives as part of the self, and the outcome of commitment is to achieve enduring self-orientations in various life domains.' (Marcia,1980).

Discourse of childhood

The research draws upon discursive psychology to explore the ways in which children talk about their lives and the process of 'becoming' an adult. Discursive psychology primarily focuses on discourse of constructs, 'a discourse refers to a set of meanings, metaphors, representations, images, stories and statements and so on that in some way produce a particular version of events.' (Burr 1995:48), in particular the type of discourse, and since it is usually the case that the children have been brought up in a predominantly feminine environment, a relational discourse might be expected (O'Connor et al., 2004). This notion of female influenced care is also evident in other studies (Phoenix, 1997).

Discourses allow us to identify and to structure the young persons own, individual experiences, and each one will be an alternative construction of childhood, of the self and the other events in their lives through language, which is fundamental to the social constructionist view (Burr, 1995). There is also a prevalent view where by it is cited that, ' The discourses which govern young people's transitions to adulthood define not only the amount of independence which young people have but the basis upon which rights and responsibilities are extended to them.' (Brannen and O'Brien, 1996, p229). It has also been argued that in the production of a young persons' own narrative self, they have to learn to negotiate the ambiguity of the process of individualisation, where the category of youth is being merged into adulthood, in order to position themselves correctly within adult and peer cultures, (Valentine 2000). The narratives of young people have located them, and defined them in opposition to adults; this position sets a clear division in the narrative segregation of children from adults which reinforce the social and spatial compartmentalisations of childhood as being a separate category from adulthood (Valentine 2000). The Biologically Determined View

Traditionally psychology conceptualised a definite 'stage theory' which was proposed by Freud which looked at the various stages leading up to adolescence, and it was expanded on by Erikson (1968) who mentions three additional stages which lead to and constitute adulthood. These stages are, Oral-Sensory, which is birth to approximately 12-18 months. Muscular-Anal, from 18 months to 3 years, Latency from 6-12 years, Adolescence from 12-18 years, Young adulthood from 19-40 years, Middle adulthood from 40-65 years and, Maturity, which is from 65-death. However by adopting this psychological theorising and stages of development it narrows the focus on the complex nature of relationships (France, 2000). Erickson (1968) also cites that an important part of identity formation in adolescence is acquiring a stable and mature value system; this is done through the exploration of their parents' ideas and values, (Knafo & Schwartz 2004). Based on these ideas Marcia (1966) developed two further models of identity, foreclosure, which is the commitment of value systems and identity without direct exposure to them, and moratorium, the status of the individuals who have not made a commitment to an identity or value but are in the process of exploring the alternatives (Knafo & Schwartz 2004). Childhood is often defined on biological grounds and is based around the physical changes which occur, such as puberty, however even when we narrow it down to just biological age, "significant variations over time and space can be detracted, (Young 02/12/04). As such it is a pre requisite that we study childhood as a social construction rather than a biological category, "Childhood cannot be studied in isolation from society as a whole", (Cunningham, 1995). Research Aims

The research aims are to:

* Explore how young people reflect on their experience of childhood. * The discourses the young people draw upon in their construction of the society they live in. * How they construct and interpret 'childhood' in their discourse, particularly in relation to themselves as an individual.

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