Fragments without a framework

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Making and Breaking Children's Lives

Edited by Craig Newnes and Nick Radcliffe

PCSS Books pound;14

This book concerns ways in which children's lives are damaged in contemporary society and seeks to promote positive strategies for countering those influences. The editors' target is an excessive reliance on "the neuro-developmental branch of child psychiatry" which has led to an explosion in the use of prescribed drugs.

The mental health services use a limited framework to describe children's problems; it ignores the impact of their relationships with others and gives no attention to the cultural meanings of their behaviour. Children are labelled but not understood, and drugged but not helped. The crucial role of their psychosocial context is overlooked.

In order to develop its critique of this approach, the book is rather loosely divided into three sections. The first part, "Constructing childhood", focuses on how we think about childhood: "Although rooted in a biological reality of immaturity, the meaning given to this immaturity varies widely." The second part, "Problematising children", examines problems that are seen as exaggerated in western societies, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and problems that are seen as being given too little attention, such as the effects of domestic violence. The final part, "Appreciating children", aims to describe examples of positive ways in which professional services can respond to this situation.

There is a serious and radical argument to be had on these themes, but sadly this book is too sloppy to contribute usefully to the debate. Again and again what could have been an effective challenge to conventional practice is dissipated through slack writing and weak editing. Thus the book opens with a chapter on "Constructions of childhood" in which a long list of statistics is presented with great verve. If they were based on firm evidence, they would provide powerful support for what is being said about public ideas of childhood. Unfortunately, in most cases the author does not appear to know what the evidence is and says she cannot give references to enable her readers to evaluate it. She excuses this at the outset with a sideways swipe at "how we use 'knowledge' to support our views", but goes ahead and uses statistical facts in exactly the way she appears to scorn.

In another chapter there is a vigorous critique of the habit public-service professionals have of telling others to be more "responsible" for their actions, overlooking the degree to which the origins of the problem lie outside the control of the person who is being berated. Unfortunately, this simple and telling point is explained at length in a repetitive polemic lasting eight pages, while just two short paragraphs at the end are devoted to suggestions as to how we might give more effective and constructive support.

A few chapters stand out from the morass, including Jonathan Calder's well-researched (though rambling) piece on histories of child abuse, Geraldine Brady's clearly argued analysis of children's own perspectives on being given a diagnosis of ADHD, and Dorothy Rowe's sensitive account of adults' fears of children's power to disrupt their lives. Unfortunately, even some of the more thoughtful chapters emphasise only the negative. For example, Freddy Jackson Brown offers a detailed critique of the scientific basis for diagnosing ADHD. That takes six pages. He ends by commending the value of some psychological therapies. The therapies themselves are not named or described. That takes two lines.

Some of the best chapters come in the final section of the book, and give much more attention to how professionals can try to prevent the abuses and exploitation described earlier or counter their adverse effects. This makes for a challenging read, as when Arlene Vetere and Jan Cooper outline possible therapeutic responses to domestic violence, or Katherine Weare sets out a rationale for emotional literacy programmes and related initiatives, or Bliss Browne narrates the exciting story of intergenerational collaboration in the "Imagine Chicago" project. But many of the chapters are too short, so that even authors who focus on preventive measures and interventions, such as Raja Bandak, often hurry through their examples and treat them superficially.

Making and Breaking Children's Lives has some valuable fragments, but it is poorly edited and often poorly written. Its short chapters are sometimes intemperate and unbalanced. Still, it is worth dipping into for its sharp illumination of some shadowy areas in our current assumptions about childhood and children and those who work with them. This could have been an important book. Sadly that opportunity was missed, even if, in places, it is a stimulating and provoking read.

Tony Cline is professor in educational psychology at the University of Luton

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