Children and Youth Speak for Themselves: Volume 13

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During the 2006 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), a group of us gathered for a session entitled, “Children and Youth Speak for Themselves.” The session was sponsored by the Children and Youth Section of the ASA, and it was well attended. The topic was one that many of us had long been awaiting at a major conference. The papers were good, and there was enthusiasm among those of us gathered there that day. As the session ended, and the attendees flowed out of the room, those of us who had given papers on the panel were filled with a sense of excitement about what had just taken place. There was a palpable energy surrounding a topic near and dear to the hearts of us and our peer scholars of children and youth: the authentic voices of kids themselves. We had a sense that day that something important had happened. We had made central to our discipline, at least for a moment, the perspectives of young people (people who most often cannot, on their own, make their voices heard by a scholarly audience). That session took place in Montreal, Canada, in the summer.

Using in-depth interviews with 30 working class and poor, minority adolescents, students were asked to describe their daily interactions and perceptions of peers in a neighborhood high school in NYC over two years. Among the key findings, students consistently expressed their distrust of “bad kids” who they blamed for many of the school's problems. Three themes based on students lived experiences are described: (1) a neighborhood school with a stigmatized reputation for low academic achievement housed students who displayed anti-academic behavior; (2) students developed normative behavior and informal rules to avoid hostile interactions with peers; (3) perceptions of “bad kids” was racialized and stereotyped. The discussion develops the idea of collective dis-identification, a reverse process from collective identity, where students learned to disconnect from their peers by racially and ethnically segregating.

Purpose – The study reported here analyzed the meanings that 8-year-old children of different demographic backgrounds constructed about poverty.

Methodology/approach – Six children with different demographic profiles were selected from a larger study for closer examination of their conceptions of poverty (Chafel & Neitzel, 2004, 2005). Content analysis was used to arrive at an in-depth interpretation of the children's ideas expressed in response to a story about poverty and interview questions.

Findings – The children communicated perspectives about poverty that appear to reflect their demographic profiles. Yet, they also shared a common ideology about the poor different from the dominant societal view.

Research implications – By selecting typical children, recognizing the interrelatedness of sources of influence, and considering the data holistically, it was possible to achieve an in-depth understanding of the children's conceptions.

Originality/value of paper – With insight into the more humane conceptions that children have about the poor, adults can take steps to nurture these ideas so that as they grow older children continue to oppose discrimination and challenge the status quo.

Purpose – Exploring children's perspectives on participation in social research provides sociologists with new insight into how to include children's voices and perspectives effectively in sociological studies of childhood.

Design/methodology/approach – Child-centered interviews were conducted with 20 children between the ages of 5 and 12 as part of a larger research project.

Findings – Findings from interviews, artwork, and researcher field notes suggest that the children interviewed enjoyed the experience of participating in child-centered social research, maintained serious attitudes toward their inclusion in social research and wish to be active participants in future research involving kids.

Practical implications – Suggestions are offered for future research studies of this population and recommendations are made to encourage American sociologists to consider the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in research endeavors.

Purpose – There are many unknowns about the obstacles as well as the resilient characteristics that vulnerable youth possess as they engage in the transition to adulthood. This chapter seeks to address some of these unknowns.

Methodology/approach – This chapter is based on qualitative interviews with 60 youths residing in a homeless shelter and follow-up interviews with 39 of these youths after they left the shelter.

Findings – This chapter presents the difficult life histories of these youths and how these histories affect their ability to successfully transition into adulthood. Youths reported elevated levels of instability, most often due to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, as well as parental drug abuse, poverty, and transience. From these experiences, youths learned to rely only on themselves for support and believe resiliently in their own ability to achieve their goals. However, when located after they had left the shelter, many were still struggling mightily to achieve these goals. Post shelter, the most stable group of participants was women with children and many young mothers spoke evocatively about the support and motivation given to them by their children.

Research limitations/implication – This chapter is limited by its small, nonrandom sample. Future research on the transition to adulthood would benefit from analyzing the transition for youths with diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Originality/value of paper – The sample population and the use of qualitative, longitudinal data make this paper an important contribution to the broader transition to adulthood literature as well as the growing sociological literature on homeless youth.

Purpose – This study examined the often minimized relationship between child sexual abuse and the body and asked: How, and by what means, is the body experienced by children after sexual abuse? The purpose of this work is to present children's interpretations of embodiment in their own words.

Methodology – Data include 10 years of semi-structured videotaped forensic interviews of children and youth seen for reported cases of sexual abuse. Utilizing an analytic-inductive method, children's verbal reports of sexual abuse were examined from a symbolic interactionist perspective in terms of re/productions of the body.

Findings – Discourse analyses revealed how children evaluated the body and negotiated related emotions. Youth ascribed meaning to the body as both materiality and social interaction. The body was experienced as object and somatic presence, as a marked or stigmatized body, and as a means of control and resistance. Through their own words, youth revealed how violence draws attention to embodiment, power, and subjectivity.

Value – Despite increased public and policy attention, limited research has explored how children describe their experiences of sexual abuse. This study addresses this serious gap in the literature by approaching the sexually abused body as a critical site of social meaning and social order. Of significant import, this work brings children's voices to the forefront; it shows how youth actively negotiate embodiment and expands work with child participants. It will be of value to practitioners working with children and to scholars in the fields of sexual victimization, sociology of the body and children/childhood.

Purpose – Child abuse is widely accepted as having a negative effect on children's academic achievement. It is less clear why this relationship exists. Current explanations of the abuse-academic achievement connection rely on psychological theories that overlook the impact the abuse has on children's developmentally relevant social circumstances.

Methodology/approach – Using data from the National Survey of Adolescents (NSA), a nationally representative sample of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 years old, a social capital perspective is implemented to show how abuse impacts academic achievement.

Findings – Children victimized by physical or sexual abuse are more likely to join deviant peer groups, which in turn leads to increased levels of delinquent behavior by the individual. Both the “negative” social capital of the peer group and the deviant individual behaviors explain away much of the disparity in performance between abused and non-abused children and contribute to the overall understanding of the mechanisms responsible for the effects of abuse.

Originality/value of chapter – These findings provide evidence of the impact abuse can have on children's well-being and outlines social mechanisms that connect abuse victimization to children's outcomes.

Purpose – Urban youths’ agency to represent their realities through media has been largely unexplored in the youth development literature. In this qualitative case study of an after-school youth media program in the Bay Area, expressions of youth agency and the role of audiences are explored during the process of producing videos for public consumption.

Methodology – As participant observer of 14 ethnically diverse youth participants aged between 15 and 18 years over 18 months, I documented (a) the kind of agencies participants engaged in and (b) the impact of live and imagined future audiences on youths’ creative processes. Analyses of field notes, semi-structured interviews, and media projects were conducted using thematic analysis to inductively generate emerging categories.

Findings – Themes included an agentive sense of self-efficacy, commitment, and responsibility, as well as perceived contributions to local audiences and an emerging collective identity. The youth demonstrated their increased sense of a social or civic duty to realistically represent youth of color to familiar and unfamiliar audiences.

Implications – This case study demonstrated how one youth media organization fostered agency through youth authorship, production, distribution, and local community dialogue. By documenting the impact of audiences from conception to public reception, this study provides valuable insight into the agentive process of publicly “performing” a commitment to complete a social change video project.

Contribution – This chapter underscores the value of performance within youth development programs and the critical component of audiences as one form of authentic assessment in order to foster individual and collective agency.

In the city setting in which this chapter's photographic investigation took place, high school dropout rates have remained at or above 50% for better than three decades. The research on which this chapter reports began with a photographic inquiry into urban youths' foundational perceptions of school itself, as well as their insights into the impediments to and supports for their school success. This examination revealed some of the reasons behind the multi-generational community disengagement that have lead to the strained relationship to schools represented by these graduation rate statistics. Grounded in critical pedagogy, “new literacy” and visual sociology traditions, this study looked to visually based mechanisms for research tools with which city students are already proficient. The findings presented here suggest that these tools can not only provide previously inaccessible data on school detachment but also supply perspectives on what these youth want to learn in school – lessons that might support their re-engagement with these institutions.

This paper reports on the ways in which a group of middle school students who received character education in elementary school define and experience character. The research was designed to improve our understanding of the meanings that the children ascribe to their character lessons in the long term, and to determine whether they see connections between these lessons and their experiences with character in middle school. The data come from interviews with 24 children who attended five different elementary schools in one town that used the Character Counts! curriculum at the time of the study. The students were questioned about their understanding of the curriculum and their own personal experiences with character-related issues in middle school. The results demonstrate that the elementary school character lessons are carried forward. Children are able to recall the formal meaning of many of the character traits that they studied. As they graduate to middle school, however, peer culture assumes an increasingly important role and their lived experience of character become more complex. Thus, the preteens studied here are actively working to reconcile the differences between character as a “learned,” and then a “lived” experience. While maturation and character lessons received beyond school may confound these findings, the results presented here suggest the need to bridge, and then perhaps adapt character programming to empower adolescent input and embrace the role of peer culture in defining and then redefining character.

Purpose – At the turn of the 21st century, popular claimsmakers made a series of claims about the benefits of volunteer work for youth: that volunteering would reduce youthful self-absorption with peer groups, introduce youth to people different from themselves, foster macro-level understandings of social problems, and connect youth to the community. This article examines youths’ experiences of volunteer work in order to determine which claims are realized and how.

Methodology/approach – I conducted in-depth interviews with 45 youth, aged 15–23, who engaged in volunteer work with a wide variety of organizations.

Findings – Youth did not always realize these claims and when they did, many did so through mechanisms different than those suggested by popular claimsmakers.

Research limitations/implications – Because this is an exploratory study which uses a purposive sample, the findings provide direction for future researchers to more fully investigate how youth realize the benefits of volunteering and under what conditions.

Practical implications – In order to make volunteering a valuable experience for as many youth as possible, volunteer coordinators need to be cautious of uncritically absorbing public claims.

Originality/value of paper – Youth speak for themselves about the value of volunteering and challenge popular claims made about youth and volunteerism.

What do children think about their participation in competitive activities? This paper argues that children have a different view of what participation in competitive activities means in their lives, and how they should interpret and deal with competitive situations, than their parents. Using data from interviews with 37 elementary school-age children, and 16 months of fieldwork, I highlight 3 main themes that emerged from interactions with children: trophies, tears, and triumphs. Trophies, and other rewards like ribbons and medals, are a great motivation for many children; these rewards are also physical embodiments that winning is prioritized in participation in these activities. Tears, along with nerves, and other feelings associated with being judged are described, in addition to a coping mechanism these children have devised to deal with these more negative feelings – friendships. Through friendships, boys and girls create bonds and have peers with whom to share their triumphs. However, these friendships are usually same-sex, and children's quite strong and divisive ideas about gender are also discussed.

Purpose – This study describes how college students understand and manifest their academic engagement, but also explores its variations and influences.

Methodology – Data for this study are drawn from semi-structured interviews with 135 undergraduate students in 2003. The interviews were conducted by other undergraduate students who were trained in an upper-level sociology research methods course.

Findings – Interviews reveal that college student engagement is a more multidimensional phenomenon than previous treatments indicate. Students used two main narratives to talk about their engagement. Many students' vocabularies exhibit a restricted engagement that goes no further than typical course requirements and is characterized by an instrumental orientation (e.g., grades). The other narrative is a more elaborate, authentic engagement characterized by a deeper motivation. They care and are enthusiastic about their academic experiences. Students' engagement is influenced by a number of factors: course- and instructor-related characteristics, additional role obligations, and other social psychological forces.

Limitations – This study was exploratory in nature and the sample, although larger than many qualitative studies, was not randomly selected. Using undergraduate students as interviewers also has its advantages and disadvantages.

Practical implications – Findings suggest that postsecondary researchers would do well to expand current quantitative measures of engagement. Also, we need a broader theoretical model for conceptualizing the multidimensional nature of student engagement and its influences.

Originality – This paper concludes by offering such a model by drawing upon recent advances in the sociology of culture.

Purpose – Research finds that youths who are able to align their educational and occupational ambitions are better able to realize both. In this chapter, we describe when and how the educational, occupational, and family aspirations and expectations of a subgroup of youth often marginalized in traditional status attainment research are aligned.

Methodology/approach – We use qualitative data from the Gautreaux Two program in Chicago, which gave vouchers to families in existing public housing to move to low-poverty and racially diverse areas. Our sample includes in-depth qualitative interviews with 93 children in 57 of the families included in the study.

Findings – Our results show that there are two groups of youths – one group whose educational, family, and occupational ambitions are aligned and one whose ambitions are misaligned. Many of the narratives of the youths whose ambitions are at odds reflect the ways in which competing ideologies of success for inner-city children can lead to misaligned aspirations. Both groups of youths also discuss their awareness of the difficulties they face in realizing even their aligned ambitions.

Research limitations/implications – This research provides implications for policies and programs seeking to improve youths' experiences both in housing mobility programs and disadvantaged neighborhoods and schools.

Originality/value of paper – This chapter adds to previous research by considering how youths' family plans intersect with their educational and occupational ambitions. Also, we explore the alignment of ambitions among a group of youths who may be considered socially marginalized, those who have grown up in urban housing developments.

Purpose – The purpose of this study is to gain greater understanding of the ways that youth “do race” in the post-Civil Rights United States. Scholars have studied racial discourse and meaning among adults but have not rigorously investigated the patterns of discourse among youth.

Methodology – I analyze in-depth interviews and in and out-of-school observations drawn from three racially mixed fourth-grade classrooms in a city that I call Rolling Acres. Among the 31 families, 21 of the children identified as White and 10 identified as Black. Rolling Acres is a midsized city of over 100,000 residents where 75 percent of its residents identify as White and 9 percent identify as Black.

Findings – Youth maintain complex understandings of the importance of race, but mediate the expression of these sentiments based on their social identities and public scripts. Both Black and White children first suggest race does not matter when asked, but then describe that race is important to others in their school. White youth suggest Black youth are the perpetuators of racial antagonisms and perpetuate racial significance through their actions. Black youth suggest White youth do not typically antagonize over race, but when they do the perpetrators are acting out of individual beliefs and thus are limited in impact.

Originality – Through an exclusive concentration on the voices of the young, new patterns of understanding and discourse are uncovered, which may relate to later divergences in racial meaning in adulthood between Blacks and Whites.

The current study examines developing racial attitudes among a group of African American adolescents. Data for this study include 28 open-ended, qualitative interviews with African American adolescents (64% girls, 36% boys) in Detroit, Michigan, and were drawn from a larger study in which these adolescents and their mothers were interviewed about racial socialization. Data analysis shows adolescents' racial attitudes to be ambivalent and influenced by the dissonance between “color-blind” rhetoric – the idea that “race doesn't matter” – and their everyday experiences, in which race does matter in important ways. Adolescents' reports of racial attitudes and experiences with racism frequently include travel anecdotes, which reveal how place, travel, and negotiating the color line influence their developing ideas about race. The findings suggest that sources beyond parental socialization strongly affect adolescents' developing racial attitudes and identities and that young people's voices should be further utilized in studies examining these issues.

Cover of Children and Youth Speak for Themselves
DOI
10.1108/S1537-4661(2010)13
Publication date
2010-03-17
Book series
Sociological Studies of Children and Youth
Editor
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-1-84950-734-9
eISBN
978-1-84950-735-6
Book series ISSN
1537-4661