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The reality of childhood

Children understand a great deal more about their parents and what is going on around them than most adults like to think, as Cedric Cullingford found out.

All teachers know how important parents are. However much teachers do for their pupils, they are aware that by the time children enter school, attitudes and abilities will have been shaped which form the basis for all the subsequent developments.

This puts pressure on parents. Hundreds of books tell them what they ought to do: sometimes they contradict each other, but that does not stop them giving earnest advice. One such book, by Bruno Bettelheim, is called, with an unusual sense of realism, A Good Enough Parent. All rest on the authority of presuming to know all about parenting, and its physical and emotional effects on children. On what do they base their evidence?

One source of information - which is consistently ignored - is the opinions and experiences of children. While the poet writes "Man hands on misery to Man", all the attention is on what people do to each other and their effects, rather than exploring what it is like from the only true source of information, the individual in question.

The evidence outlined here derives from many interviews with children who offered insights into their lives almost in passing. What they said was not set out to please or shock. They were all consistent in what they said and talked with an objective scrutiny and clarity that itself should remind us of their abilities, even if it is somewhat disconcerting.

"My Dad's mum died of cancer and, well, my Dad's dad didn't die of any illness. It was just he wasn't healthy in life. He didn't eat well. He didn't eat the right foods to keep you healthy. He had two heart attacks and then he had a stroke and after that he just died." (Boy, 7) Their analysis of the circumstances of their own upbringing and their delineation of their parents' strengths and weaknesses give a powerful picture of the vital importance of this phase in their lives. Young children do not live in a kind of dream world, often imagined by adults. On the contrary, the daily realities of life, man's inhumanity to man expressed in wars and crime, are constantly brought, even if inadvertently, to their attention.

The result is that they recognise the relativity of their circumstances. This means that they both know that where they are born and where they live is of supreme importance and a matter of chance.

"My Dad, he used to live in Holland and my sister used to, but my Mum lived in England .... my next Daddy, because my other Daddy died, and my other Daddy died in Germany. I haven't got two Daddies but my one, I can't remember, but I think when my Mum wasn't married." (Girl, 6) They care about their parents and their environment. But they also know that they could have found themselves in quite different circumstances, for better or worse. They are surrounded by people either richer or poorer. They accept their circumstances, but they do not assume it is the perfect place in a perfect world.

Their parents, therefore, have a context and their own histories. They are known to have a past and an extended family and both are often described. Adults might be circumspect about divorce; but children are unworried about telling it as it is. Parents are of great importance and the desire to be loved by them is strong; but they are seen as individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses.

When children are older they are aware of the significance of parents in their lives, but even at the time they are more acutely conscious of the difference between successful and unsuccessful parenting that we might have thought.

"Like if some parents beat up their kids it could change their life, make them wanna hit people ... if their parents make them goody goodies, when they grow up they'll get fed up being goody goodies." (Boy, 10) They can be very caring of their parents but also very critical. They love their parents and can be loved in return, but they recognise this is not enough in itself.

What children seek in their parents is to be noticed, to be a person of interest, to matter as an individual. They do not want to be treated like an object to be controlled or some sentimental thing to be pitied. They know when parents care more about themselves, perhaps because of their own problems, rather than about their children. The attention to detail that goes with caring for children is, after all, hard work.

Children also make it quite clear that they need discipline. While being allowed to do whatever they wish can feel attractive at the time, they all resent it and regret it, as it is an indication of a lack of interest and attention.

"I was neglected. I wasn't bothered about it, you know. I could do what I wanted and that. Maybe some kids would have thought this was great but ... neglect, someone who's not ... given love and stuff like that and support. " (Girl, with hindsight, 21) Good parents, in their eyes, are not soft. There might be arguments through a clash of will, but self respect follows respect for parents.

Above all, children seek a dialogue with their parents. Warmth, however well intentioned, is not enough in itself. They wish to establish a relationship that is intellectual as well as emotional. Who else will help them consistently form their own interpretation of the world in which they find themselves? Friendships come and go; but they also wish to have one steady relationship which lasts.

For parents, that balance between showing an interest in the child, and being over-dominant is a difficult one to strike. On the one hand lies indifference - "do whatever you want to" - and on the other, seeing the child as an extension of themselves - "Come on! I want you to . . ." The surprising thing is that children understand this very early on. That view of children as helpless, optimistic innocents should no longer prevail. They have clear points of view, and observe with an intense scrutiny the world in which they find themselves.

"I'm gonna have one child because if you have two then they might start arguing like me and Sarah do." (Girl, 9) This fact might not be comfortable, which is why many have refused to take children seriously. For under such a gaze it is not children who might be embarrassed but us.

Cedric Cullingford is professor of education at the University of Huddersfield. His book, Parents. Education and the State is published by Arena.

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