Autonomous Children, Privileging Negotiation, and New Limits to Freedom
Vandenbroeck, Michel, International Journal of Educational Policy, Research and Practice
Recently, scholars have introduced what has been called a 'new paradigm,' pleading to view children as competent social actors (e.g., James & Prout, 1997; James, Jenks & Prout, 1998; Wyness, 2000). They reconsider social research from this 'new sociology of childhood' perspective and have (e.g., Christensen & Prout, 2002; Mayall, 2002) inspired political action through the children's rights movement, action research and policy research in the field of education, as well as pedagogical action and even parental advice in Belgium and internationally (Verhellen, 1994). In many respects, this paradigm shift can be viewed as a 'step forward', giving voices and visibility to a group in society that for centuries has been silenced, only on the basis of age as a discriminatory classification. The new paradigm must, however, be examined critically.
A Historical Perspective
Let us first consider briefly (so incompletely) two examples of how we can look at this discussion historically. In nineteenth century Belgium for instance, children were predominantly perceived as fragile and in need of protection, in a context of industrialization and urbanization, poverty, child mortality, and the abolition of child labor. The construction of the Fragile Child (the child at risk) was closely interconnected with the construction of the Responsible Mother with a dual responsibility: towards her child, as well as towards society. While the mother was idealized, labor class mothers where subject of a declining confidence by the bourgeois philanthropic institutions, as well as by the state. In official reports, child mortality in early twentieth century Belgium was never explained using social context or precarious living conditions, but rather attributed to the neglect and the ignorance of labor class mothers. First a social phenomenon (i.e., child mortality) is depicted as a social 'problem', in the economic context of industrialization that enhances the value of physical health (Foucault, 1975). Subsequently, the social problem is transformed into an educational problem and thus individualized. The parent (i.e., the mother) is constructed as inadequate and finally this constructs the child as an object of intervention. A comprehensive 'machine' (Deleuze, 1986) for the civilization of the family (infant consultations and child care centers) is thus brought about.
A second example is illustrated in the defining of social problems (i.e. the failure of labor class children in school) as spoken into educational problems that reinforce the monomatric model of the family and enact a re-culpabilization of the mother (McGurck et al., 1993; Singer, 1993). The discussion in the 1970s on the failing results of compensation programs in the late 1960s (such as the various Head Start programs) followed a similar path. Another illustration of a social issue spoken as education problem is the modernistic belief in (vulgarized) science as core to the salvation of children. Examples in the Belgian case are the introduction of developmental observation instruments in childcare leading to a construction of the preschool teacher as a technician; the large scale in-service training and consequent transformation of infant consultation staff in order to enable them to 'educate' the labor class mothers with the new insights on developmental stages; or the subsequent labeling of new arriving ethnic minority parents as responsible for the 'mental retardation' of their children (Vandenbroeck, 2004).
As many scholars have pointed out, the discursive regimes described, have silenced children in research as well as in policy. These discursive regimes have also silenced specific groups of adults as parents. Constructions of childhood are always interconnected with constructions of parenthood, but not in a simple antagonistic way. One should be extremely careful when opposing children and parents from a power relations point of view on the macro-level. …