How enlightened are we?

Attitudes to childhood have changed considerably over the years. In the Victorian era, it was commonplace to send children to work in factories and down mines at a tender age, and they were often subject to harsh punishments for offences that would now be regarded as minor. The novels of Charles Dickens convey the grim reality of life for many children at this time.

Nowadays, of course, we like to think that we are much more enlightened.

Legislation is in place to ensure that children are educated, that they are protected from cruel treatment and that their general welfare is promoted in a variety of ways. We have a Children's Commissioner with a remit to make life better for young people.

Nevertheless, there are grounds for thinking that modern attitudes to childhood are, at best, ambivalent. The Children's Society is currently carrying out a study entitled The Good Childhood Enquiry and the initial findings make interesting reading. Three key questions are being addressed.

What are the conditions for a good childhood? What obstacles exist to those conditions? What changes could be made that would be likely to improve childhood?

Comparative data on children's well-being in the European Union suggests that the UK fares badly in terms of a number of indicators. These include the quality of children's relationships with their parents and peers, health, relative poverty and deprivation, and the incidence of risky behaviour (relating to sex, alcohol and drugs).

The Children's Society survey canvassed the views of people aged 14-16, and a number of key themes emerged. Family was the most important topic, with emphasis on relationships, safety and freedom.

Comments reflected a degree of tension between these elements but family as a source of stability and security was a recurring motif. Having friends to rely on and talk to was identified as the second most important condition for a good quality of life. This was related to access to a range of leisure activities which could provide a focus for socialising.

Interestingly, fewer than one in five agreed with the statement that "my area cares about its young people".

Education featured prominently in the responses, with frequent reference to the importance of working hard and striving to achieve. There was recognition of the importance of learning for job opportunities and economic independence. However, schools were also seen as sources of stress, and comments about teachers were both positive and negative.

"Family" as a concept has been overtaken by new attitudes to sexual relationships. The notion of partners staying together "for the sake of the children" is seen by many as old-fashioned and a denial of personal fulfilment to adults. Similarly, changes in work patterns, some driven by economic necessity (as in the case of single parents), mean that the amount of time parents now spend with their children has been reduced.

These trends can lead to serious contradictions. Children are sometimes seen as innocent and vulnerable but, at other times, as a burden or threat.

Adult attitudes lurch between sentimentality and condemnation.

They are quick to criticise the behaviour of some young people, while showing a disinclination to subject their own conduct to scrutiny. And, despite more attention being paid to the "voices" of children, the power differential remains substantial. Perhaps we are not as enlightened as we think.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of Paisley

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