Behind the image of youth

26th March 2004 at 00:00
Mary Jane Drummond is blown away by a book that uses pictorial evidence to discuss how adults see children

Picturing Childhood: the myth of the child in popular imagery By Patricia Holland IB Tauris pound;14.95

Patricia Holland has a huge, eclectic collection of pictures of children and a terrific project: to write a serious commentary on the nature of childhood based on her collection. The resulting book is generously illustrated with an astonishing variety of images and the text explores the "attitudes and ideas which construct the image".

Along the way Holland critically examines some of the ideologies associated with childhood: she lists playfulness, innocence, victimisation and bad behaviour. In another list, she adds "potent themes - family relationships, sexuality, nature, schooling and education, violence and the very limits of humanity itself". No shortage of material then, as, with considerable relish, Holland sets about her self-imposed task of constructing a set of narratives about children, "stories that become part of cultural competence".

If at this point you are bothered with a gnawing sense of dej... vu, you will be reassured to learn that Picturing Childhood is billed in the author's introduction as a sequel to What is a Child? (Virago 1992). A few pages later, Holland redefines her book as an updated version of the earlier text: this is much closer to the truth. The contents pages of the two books are virtually identical, with only minimal changes to the enticing list of chapters within: "Superbrats in the charmed circle of home", "Crybabies and damaged children" are just two of those that appear in both publications. And, while the new book contains many images that have appeared since the Virago version, many still feature in both.

Some of the additions are predictable enough; the grainy CCTV shot of two-year-old James Bulger being led away from a shopping mall by two older boys who later killed him, for example, was an obvious candidate for inclusion. Holland's detailed commentary on this picture notes a gruesome detail. Across the top of it runs the illuminated name of a shop, like a caption to the image below - except that the shop is Mothercare, and this image "represents everything that caring mothers dread".

To accommodate the new material, Holland has eliminated some of the pictures from the 1992 book, one of which is sadly missed. It shows ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher standing next to "the boy who took the Tory conference by storm", the 16-year-old party-leader-to-be William Hague.

Overall, though, the book has gained a great deal by being rewritten; it is longer, broader and deeper, with an extensive range of references (though with some deplorable casual errors and inaccuracies). The developing argument is stronger than before, more in tune with the "new sociology of childhood" and the growing attention to the voice of the child in many dimensions of civic society.

The new introductory chapter is almost all fresh material, and full of disturbing ideas. Did you know the average "mobile citizen" can expect to see 1,300 advertisements a day? Have you considered the necessary relationship between pictures and "the fantasy world of human longings"? Holland argues that the imagery of childhood provokes nostalgia for the past, for long-lost golden moments, and a longing for a harmonious future.

But she also reminds us of the challenge implicit in the concept of childhood: she describes how the untamed child, the subordinate, the other, threatens the comfort and security of the adult. In response, the adult seeks to dominate and control, not just this child or these children, but "one's own persistent and troublesome childhood".

Two especially strong chapters are concerned with the images of children's play, contrasting self-directed, spontaneous play with the obedient play of the Plowden child in the benevolent autocracy of the orderly "progressive" classroom. The first of these, "Ignorant pupils and harmonious nature", gives an account of schools as places where "childhood is confined and defined". It is refreshingly uncontaminated by references to overworked educational texts, but includes a gratuitous and well-aimed swipe at the substance and purpose of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's early learning goals.

The story of the mid-1970s dispute and public inquiry at William Tyndale school, in the London borough of Islington, has been retained from the first book, but the new text has been updated with several sorrier inventions of the 1997 Labour government: failing schools, superheads, exclusion, league tables, testing and assessment. More than once, as I read, I was reminded of Piaget's snappy one-liner, "The conflict between obedience and individual liberty is the affliction of childhood." Holland's position is similar but more complex. She depicts a series of conflicts: between the image and the lived experience, "the lives of real flesh and blood children", between a "frightening orientation towards the future and a more comfortable backwards glance" in the images she analyses; between childhood as a precious quality, to be protected, and the "continuous struggle" to escape "the bitter experience of being a child".

At first, I was disappointed not to find a concluding chapter on the implications for teachers and other educators. But I have come to see this as a strength. It means the many teachers and other educators who read this book, as I hope they will, must do their own thinking about what it means for them. At a time when dozens of benevolent agencies are queuing up to do teachers' thinking for them, this book comes as an unsettling professional challenge. Reading it, we must ask ourselves some difficult questions: how can we learn to construct child-shaped spaces that avoid doing violence to the individual children who inhabit them? How can we become culturally competent in reading the stories of childhood?

Mary Jane Drummond was until recently a lecturer at the faculty of education, University of Cambridge

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