No cause for alarm: childhood isn't 'toxic'

29th March 2013 at 00:00
A report argues that 'crises' facing young people are merely projections of adult unease, finds Adi Bloom

The idea that 21st-century children are over-cosseted consumers, who spend more time shooting computer villains than running around outdoors, is merely a reflection of adult anxiety and insecurity, according to a new study.

In a review of existing research, Mary Jane Kehily, professor of gender and education at The Open University, points out that "the idea that childhood is currently in crisis appears to be everywhere. A general assumption that childhood is not what it used to be... appears to saturate our social worlds."

The notion of childhood as a time of idealised innocence can be traced to the Romantic movement of 18th-century Europe. "Believing that children came from god, the figure of the child came to embody a spiritual dimension, placing children close to nature, as blessed creatures unsullied by the adult world," Kehily says.

This Romantic idealism still influences the way that today's society thinks about childhood, she argues. When, in 2007, a report by children's charity Unicef on the well-being of children in 21 industrialised countries ranked the UK at the bottom of the table, the children's commissioner commented: "There is a crisis at the heart of our society."

Meanwhile, a 2007 report by the independent Cambridge Primary Review noted that: "Children are under intense and perhaps excessive pressure from the policy-driven demands of their schools and... life outside the school gates is increasingly insecure and dangerous."

Where once it was assumed that children were the collective responsibility of all adults, "a distrust of adults in general has emerged into a climate where all adults, including parents, could be potential child abusers," Kehily says.

And in a 2007 survey conducted by UK charity the Children's Society, 90 per cent of 1,255 respondents said that children are more materialistic than in previous generations.

This was echoed by former primary head Sue Palmer in her book Toxic Childhood. This argued that children had come to associate happiness with wanting things, buying things and having things bought for them.

In addition, adults regularly argue that exposure to violent computer games is desensitising children to violence. Such sedentary activities have created an extra fear, too: the British Medical Association has begun debating whether overfeeding children should be regarded as parental neglect.

But, Kehily argues, such concerns are not new. Since the 16th century, any change in the experience of childhood in Europe and North America has generated similar cries of "crisis".

This was heightened during the 19th and 20th centuries. Compulsory schooling and a reduction in infant mortality were coupled with a transition from valuing children for their ability to contribute to the family income to valuing children for emotional reasons.

Childhood became a focus of state intervention. In order to reduce infant mortality, for example, mothers were educated about hygiene. The present preoccupation with overweight children, Kehily argues, has a parallel with past concerns about underweight children.

New cultural developments have also created moral panic among adults. In the 1950s, penny dreadful comics were accused of inciting boys to violence, for example. Today, teenage magazines and social networking sites are deemed to sexualise children at an excessively young age.

By the late 20th century, children also had rights. They wanted access to visual culture and new technology. "The powerful pull of the Romantic ideal and the pragmatism of contemporary child-rearing practices appear to create an incongruous space, giving rise to a range of discordant voices and harbingers of doom," Kehily says.

"Moral panics may also be imaginative projections... that articulate an anxiety about change and loss," she concludes. "The idea of childhood in crisis can be understood as a moral panic that can be seen as a cyclical concern, rather than a new phenomenon."


There is often an inconsistency between nostalgia and moral panic, according to Mary Jane Kehily, a professor at The Open University.

In an account of her own childhood, growing up in a Midlands spa town in the 1960s, she reveals that yesterday's "ideal" childhood is often surprisingly similar to today's moral panic.

"Homework was never insisted upon, there were no structured activities and I was allowed to play outside from an early age - about 4 or 5," Kehily says. "Adult intervention was unknown."

During summer holidays, she and her five siblings were encouraged to leave the house as soon as possible, for as long as possible, only returning for a fortifying snack.

"There were no lashings of lemonade, no character-making incidents and no big adventures," she says. "Just a bunch of working-class kids with time on their hands."

They often made dens on the riverbank. At one point, they even built a raft, which sank miserably - complete with passengers - when it was set adrift on the water.

And she and her friends knew all the local characters, including the "bad boys". One of these was arrested during a game of rounders.

"What parent today would let their children play unsupervised for hours by a river?" she asked. "And, if they did, what would they be called by the tabloid press?"


Kehily, M.J. (2013) "Childhood in Crisis? An introduction to contemporary Western childhood", in Understanding Childhood (The Policy Press).


Mary Jane Kehily, The Open University.


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