Childhood: the big picture lacks focus

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
THE CHILD IN QUESTION. By Diana Gittins. Macmillan #163;40 Paperback #163;12.99

Children have always been able to evoke contradictory reactions among adults. They can seem our best hopes for the future and also represent our worst fears. In fiction and films, they variously represent ultimate innocence or deceptive wickedness. Attempting to account for such diverse images is no easy matter, but Diana Gittins makes a brave attempt.

Eschewing Marxist sociology alone as an adequate explanatory framework for understanding childhood, Gittins also enlists history, literature, art and psychoanalysis in her attempt to "disentangle some of the very real contradictions and complexities inherent in the apparently simple terms of 'the child' and 'childhood' ".

This is well and good, but the final product almost inevitably contains too many brief summaries and some over-hasty conclusions. The contributions of the writings of George Eliot and Charles Dickens to the Victorian image of childhood are not given adequate treatment. This is hardly surprising, given that each merits a book on its own rather than a couple of pages.

Gittins's references to her own troubled childhood are legitimate, but the comparatively few recollections she allows herself are so unusual and disturbing that the reader is left wanting to hear and understand more. A full autobiography might have been a better first step, however well researched and timely much of this book's contents turn out to be.

The chapter "Child sexuality: why do adults panic?" is especially worthwhile. Her analysis of the reactions to the 1987 crisis over child abuse in Cleveland makes uncomfortable reading.

But it is difficult to maintain this level of informed criticism over so many other areas, covering a time-span from Aristotle to James Bulger and bringing in contributions from Descartes, Erasmus, Foucault and Jung en route.

This is the problem for any author writing eclectically about childhood. Attempting to provide a full picture risks superficiality; an over-selective account can be narrow-minded.

Gittins still achieves much. At a time when discussions about the nature of childhood range from serious initiatives at government level to tabloid panic and exaggeration, this reminder of previous arguments on the topic is easily accessible and always provocative.

Nicholas Tucker

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