Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Valuing Children

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Valuing Children

Article excerpt

Talk presented at Early Childhood Australia's Biennial conference, 'Children--The core of society'. Hobart, July 2003

Talking about valuing children to a delegation of early childhood professionals seems like a clear case of preaching to the converted. Yet two things caused me to select this topic.

First, when I was teaching at university, my students were teachers--many of them early childhood teachers--in graduate programs. At the outset of a lecture on behaviour management, I would ask the group if it would be alright for a caregiver to smack someone who was deliberately spitting food at her during feeding. Admittedly, over the years fewer and fewer said that they would condone smacking--but some always did. Then I clarified that I had not been thinking of a three-year-old spitting the food, but an 83-year-old who had Alzheimers disease. The answer then would unanimously change: it was now not alright for the carer to smack the elderly person. When I asked what was the difference, on one occasion one member of the group said it was because the elder had been a person (but, presumably no longer was!). In other words, a child was not yet a person.

The second reason for speaking on this topic is that during my research into behaviour management practices in child care centres (or long day care) I observed that, whereas caregivers typically had a developmental view of children when it came to their learning, many had a moralistic view of children when it came to their behaviour. One saw developmental errors as natural; the second saw behavioural errors as punishable.

During my research, it became clear that at the heart of adults' approaches to disruptive behaviour was their view of children. So I will begin by describing a range of views of childhood. In doing so, I will draw on the sociology of childhood but need in advance to flag that I am not a sociologist and so this will not be an exhaustive critique.

Views of childhood

1. Rousseau's innocent child

The first view of childhood is of Rousseau's innocent child. According to Rousseau, a child starts out life close to nature and will achieve virtue if uncorrupted by adult influences and if permitted free and playful self-expression. The modern translation of this concept could perhaps be Elkind's (1988) concept of the 'hurried child'.

This view sounds positive and I must say, in these days of frenzied, structured extracurricular activities for even the youngest of children, I am attracted to many of its tenets. But it has the negative effect of seeing children as passive victims. Perhaps the way to deal with the hurried child is not through the concept of corrupted innocence, but through a humanist view of childhood.

2. The sour view of children

The second view of childhood is what U.S. writer Alfie Kohn (1996) has called a 'sour view' of children. This upholds that children are born as 'sinners' (for want of a better word). The philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, once described life as 'nasty, brutish and short'. The same description is often applied to children (It seems that those who believe this of children were never children themselves).

This view sees children as delinquents-in-waiting (as the source of social disorder). It distrusts the influence of the peer group, which it sees as opposite to parental agendas. The research on children's friendships counters this clearly: over many years social researchers have found that young people choose antisocial peers only when they have a poor relationship with their parents; when their relationship with their parents is close, they choose friends of whom their parents would approve.

This sour view leads to attempts to keep young people in school (which it regards as their rightful place) longer as a cure for social disorder (to keep young people off the streets), when the cause of the disorder is chronic poverty, not children. …

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