The end of youth as we know it?

28th January 2005 at 00:00
The Future of Childhood

By Alan Prout

RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99

Defining childhood is more difficult than it looks. In what way is a young prodigy more childish than a stupid adult? Do homeless children trying to survive in the streets of Brazil have anything that could be recognised in the developed world as a childhood? When children become the breadwinners for their families, or act as translators and mediators for a culture in which they have grown up, but which their immigrant parents or grandparents do not understand, who is then the child?

These and other issues are all considered in The Future of Childhood, a short book of formidable intelligence. Professor Prout tells the history of child study from its early emphasis on biological roots in the works of Charles Darwin through to the 20th century insistence on the social and anthropological forces that also bear down upon the young. He considers those academics who have more recently suggested that childhood is a social construction imposed by an adult, largely patriarchal world that defines society according to its own needs.

When fathers were the only breadwinners and mothers stayed at home, for example, it was convenient to infantilise the women and children who were expected to fit into this status quo. When mothers started working outside, small children in particular were re-defined as no longer in need of the hour-by-hour parental attachment that was once the approved norm. Instead, they were seen as innately social beings, eager to experience the day-care arrangements necessary now that so many of their mothers were out of the house during the day.

On this reasoning, an objective answer to what childhood is and what it most needs is never going to be possible, given that each society imposes the sort of childhood that suits it best.

Those universal psychological concepts once taken for granted are now also seen to vary between societies and between children themselves. Prout's solution when looking for definitions is to avoid polarities in favour of interconnections. For him, childhood is something all societies have to come to terms with, given that human beings share with other higher mammals a period of juvenility before coming to full physical and sexual maturity.

How each society responds to this period is governed by myriad economic, geographic and cultural forces. The end result is a state of childhood encompassing cultural, biological, social, individual, historical, technological, spatial, material and discursive influences, and more.

This is not as clear an answer as it might be, because Prout is more concerned with theoretical models than practical applications, and this makes his book difficult to read. Just one case study would have helped explain what exactly is meant by "actor-network theories" and the way these affect children, or how "bio-technical-social translation" gets across to pupils milling around in the playground.

But there are plenty of interesting asides in this generally magisterial work. Prout is good, for example, on the dispute between the cyber-critics, who see television and the internet as eroding childhood, and the cyber-utopians, who say the same technology gives children the potential for a real voice in their own affairs. Prout makes it clear throughout that childhood is as subject to change as any other social phenomenon.

But change in itself does not always have to be for the best, and nostalgia for the certainties of past childhood seems likely to remain a regular feature of complaints about present practice in the home. The modern switch from what anthropologist Bob Simpson has described as the nuclear to the unclear family (Changing Families, 1998) is often linked with the transition of childhood from secret garden to busy crossroads. The competing traffic here could well be parents and other interested adults hurtling along in opposite directions, sometimes crashing into each other.

In modern children's literature, this change is evident in the way young adventurers can no longer take their home base for granted, as in, for example, the stories of Arthur Ransome and Enid Blyton. Their modern counterparts have instead to develop new social and coping skills to survive in often novel domestic situations. How fortunate that the long period of juvenility granted by nature is still there to give them the time needed to come to terms with the increasingly confused and confusing world they are born into and must make sense of, just as they have always done.

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