Childhood: Changing Contexts: Volume 25


Table of contents

(19 chapters)

Children – their number, their welfare, their property (whom they belong to), their education – have long been a matter of public concern. What a “proper” childhood should be is always a highly politicized issue never left entirely in private hands. Modern societies in particular have rendered explicit and institutionalized the existence of a public interest in children and in childhood as constituted within, but also outside, families. In this volume, we use the expression “politicizing of childhood” in a broad sense in reference to the ways in which childhood is conceptualized not only as a primary family or parental responsibility, but, in addition, as a matter of public importance and concern, something for (welfare) state intervention. “Politicizing of childhood” encompasses the public motivation and mobilization for childhood change; the political processes in which policies are formulated, legislated and enacted; the response to policy interventions that may in turn feed back into public and political discourse, policy formulation and so on (see Ellingsæter & Leira, 2006, p. 4). The contributions in this volume illustrate one or more of these processes.

Personal services are extremely important in the lives of working parents. This applies in particular to childcare services, as care responsibilities constitute a major obstacle to (full) employment. The importance of measures in this area has long been recognised by the European Council and Union. In March 1992, the European Council passed a recommendation on childcare to the effect that Member States ‘should take and/or progressively encourage initiatives to enable women and men to reconcile their occupational family and upbringing responsibilities arising from the care of children’ (92/241/EEC). Ten years later, at the 2002 Barcelona summit, the aims were formulated more explicitly and targets were set with regard to childcare. Confirming the goal of full employment, the European Council agreed that ‘Member States should remove disincentives to female labour force participation and strive, taking into account the demand for childcare facilities and in line with national patterns of provision, to provide childcare by 2010 to at least 90% of children between 3 years old and the mandatory school age and at least 33% of children under 3 years of age’ (European Council, 2002).

Family policies are for the most part inextricably linked to state intervention in other aspects of public policy. Also, support to families is based on numerous historical and social rationales. These include assisting parents with the costs of raising children, fighting against social inequality, tackling market-driven poverty and unemployment, supporting lone parents, helping parents combine family and working life, and encouraging families to have more children. The hierarchical ordering by level of importance of these rationales can vary considerably according to the country concerned.

At the end of the 20th century, birth-rates had fallen below the replacement rate in many Western countries. Changing attitudes towards having children had resulted in very small families, even in childlessness, giving rise to the Vienna Institute of Demography analyzing EUROSTAT data on the most common reasons for Europeans between the ages of 18 and 39 being childless. Almost half of these young adults (48 per cent) said they did not want children because they had general concerns about the future; another 46 per cent lacked a steady partner, while 44 per cent reported enjoying the current childless lifestyle and believed it would be difficult to fit in children; more than a third of these young(er) adults feared the loss of leisure time. ‘Harder’ facts, such as the expense of having children and job pressures, seemed to matter less for the childless respondents, albeit still more than a third of them gave such reasons (quoted in Theil, 2006, p. 54). Concerns about the future, lifestyle and steady partnership outweigh other worries. The expense of having children, work commitments and related problems in balancing work and family may be further reasons for delaying or foregoing family formation, but are not of prime importance. Societies intent on encouraging young people to have children, and at a younger age, must take both concerns into account, i.e. invent a broad discourse on policies for children and families and at the same time design wide-ranging policies. Do they deliver? Can they deliver?

For much of history, children have constituted nearly half of human populations. The twentieth century marked a tidal turn in population composition for many societies. By the beginning of the current century, a number of societies had only 15% children under age 15 and nearly twice as high a proportion of individuals aged 60 and over (UN, 2007). Japan tops the statistics, having 28% old people and 14% children. With Japan as the only exception, the twenty “oldest” populations, with median ages of 39–42, are all in Europe. In sharp contrast, some countries in Asia and Africa have less than 5% of their populations aged 60 and over. Twenty-seven of these countries have median ages under 18. The lowest figure is found in Uganda, where the median is 14.8. In 2007, the proportion of children in the overall population of Africa is 41%, while individuals aged 60 and over constitute 5.3% (UN, 2007).

The twentieth century witnessed dramatic changes both in the population and in the family/kinship age-structure, which affected the prevalence, length, and form of relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. Although most European countries share similar trends, there are considerable national peculiarities which have an impact on the experience of grandchildhood.

The Children's Welfare Network was informed by the ‘new social study of childhood’ (Qvortrup, Bardy, Sgritta, & Wintersberger, 1994), with emphasis on the life conditions of children here and now. The basic question formulated in terms of a generational perspective was: Do children as a population group experience life conditions different from those of other population groups – the elderly, for example?

One of the most important changes in the past few decades influencing the way in which early childhood is experienced in European countries is the dramatic increase of mothers with young children who are also active in the paid labour force. The Dutch case is exemplary of this change. Dutch women's labour force participation increased from internationally the lowest rate for married women at 7.3% in 1960, to 32.8% in 1987 and to 58.7% in 2005. The latter was above the average participation rate in the European Union (15 countries) (Statistics Netherlands, CBS, 2006). In addition, the proportion of employed mothers with children below the age of 6 more than doubled in less than a decade: from 26% in 1988 to 57% in 1996 (OSA, 1997).1 In 2003, 90% of women in the Netherlands remained in the labour force after giving birth to their first child, although they worked fewer hours (Statistics Netherlands, CBS, 2006). Children who are born in the Netherlands nowadays, therefore, generally have a mother working in the labour market, who has to organise her time around the triple needs of care, income and professional demands. This substantial change from the situation still prevalent in the mid-eighties, is somewhat counter-balanced by changes in fathers’ behaviour following the birth of a child. While in most European countries fathers increase their labour force participation when they have a child (see e.g. Plantenga & Siegel, 2004), an increasing proportion of Dutch fathers on the contrary reduces it. 10% of first-time fathers reduced their working hours when their child was born in 1997, 13% did so in 2003 (Statistics Netherlands, CBS, 2006).2

‘Being a refugee means learning from your children instead of teaching them yourself’. These are the words of a 43-year-old writer from Turkey, father of three. He is a refugee in Greece, where he works as a tailor. Language, the tool of his trade, is what he can no longer use, even for his own children. In contrast to her father, 12-year-old Boran, who is fluent in both Greek and her mother tongue, sits beside her father and translates what he says, and at the same time explains how frustrated he feels that he cannot communicate with the people around him.

Researchers have been known to complain that practitioners do not listen to their findings or recommendations, and have emphasised the importance of evidence-based practice. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, research concerning children produced a shift leading to a new sociological paradigm of childhood. This paradigm parallels the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), produced at the same time. Both productions emphasise common themes, which in the principles of the CRC are expressed as non-discrimination, children's participation and the best interests of the child. Sociological frameworks and the CRC were brought together in the growing movement to ‘child-rights programming’ (CRP) taken up by many UN and international children's agencies since the turn of the twenty-first century.1

This paper reports several findings of a survey on children aged 5–131 years focusing on their daily lives. The aim was to test the assumption, claimed in New Childhood Sociology, that children are a generational group so strictly dependent on adult society that they have little autonomy in their daily behaviour. Moreover, although they are a social group that is different from that of adults, they are so diversified internally that it seems more appropriate to speak of diversified childhoods (James, Jenks & Prout, 1998; James & Prout, 1990; Qvortrup, 1991; Hengst & Zeiher, 2004). Our first objective in this paper was therefore to improve the rather scarce knowledge of children's everyday lives in post-industrial Western societies and then to analyse to what extent these were connected with those of adults. Finally, we wished to detect the degree and patterns of differences in the children's lifestyles.

Social science and media depictions of youth living on our city streets typically focus on their “risk behaviours,” especially illicit drug use and unprotected sex, the social environmental challenges they face, in particular higher likelihood of sexual and physical assault and homicide (Tyler, Hoyt, & Whitbeck, 2000; Auerswald & Eyre, 2002; Pedersen & Hegna, 2003; Brooks, Milburn, Rotheram, & Witkin, 2004; Ensign & Bell, 2004; Raleigh-DuRoff, 2004; Hyde, 2005; Witkin et al., 2005) and their delinquent/criminal behaviour (Hartnagel, 1998). This focus on the multiple “risks” that street youth face has been accompanied by the search for determinants of the risk factors for street involvement, such as parental substance abuse and child neglect. Female street youth have been depicted as particularly vulnerable, partly because once on the street, they come under the control of male recruiters who make the girls drug-dependent and force them into trading sexual favours for money or in-kind goods. According to Bagley and Young (1987, p. 23), “the girl who finally tries prostitution is one who is already degraded and demoralized, in a state of psychological bondage, with grossly diminished self-confidence.” Adults who exploit these female street youth are believed to take advantage of their feelings of disconnectedness and low self-esteem and isolation (Silbert & Pines, 1981, 1982a, 1982b) and addiction to substances (Green & Goldberg, 1993). Yet, many females who were victims of childhood physical and sexual abuse do not end up on the street, nor do all those who were abused and end up on the street (male as well as female) become involved in prostitution, and, finally, many males and females who become involved in prostitution have no history of early abuse (Hagan & McCarthy, 1997).

Recent intensification of the “politicisation of childhood” has been observed by analysts in numerous social science disciplines, and in a variety of public policy domains. Sociologists of childhood, for example, often attribute this greater politicisation both to shifts in the social construction of “social problems” and visions of children's agency (for example Mayall, 1994; Oakley, 1994, p. 17; Qvortrup, 1994; Livingstone, 2002, p. 13). Others observe this politicisation in changing patterns of defamilialisation and refamilialisation of social care and their implications for patterns of social solidarity (Leira & Saraceno, 2002 or Wincott, 2006, for example). Indeed, the politicisation of childhood – defined as the move from childhood being understood as primarily a family or parental responsibility to it being also a matter of public importance and concern – has emerged as a major theme in debates about “modernising” social policy paradigms (for example, Leira, 2002; Jenson, 2004; Esping-Andersen, Gallie, Hemerijck, & Myles, 2002).

Childhood often represents a central arena through which we construct our fantasies about the future and a battleground through which we struggle to express competing ideological agendas. (Timimi, 2006, p. 35)One critical part of the future is our children. The way we bring them up is an indication of how we feel about the future; and of course our attitudes to the young and ideas on how they should be educated reveal much about the present …. Without a strong sense of how we want the future to be, the government tends to revert to a default position, thinking mainly about how children will fit into the economy. (Davison, 2005, p. 7)

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Comparative Social Research
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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