Copyright Jan Mason and Bronwyn Steadman, 1996. One copy of this paper can be made for the purpose of personal, non-commercial use, subject to proper attribution to the authors.


Jan Mason and Bronwyn Steadman
University of Western Sydney, Macarthur
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences


At the beginning of this century child welfare writers and policy makers predicted that it would be marked as 'the century of the child'. (Tiffin, 1982). Certainly the twentieth century has been notable for the emphasis given to the study and conceptualisation of childhood as a specific stage of life. This conceptualisation has focussed on childhood as a period of dependency, requiring protection and the development of state systems to ensure this protection.

As we approach the end of the twentieth century the media and researchers in the area of child welfare are highlighting the vulnerability of children in our society and the extent to which child protection systems themselves, frequently increase abused children's vulnerability to further abuse. (Cashmore et al., 1994, S.M.H., 22/8/96; Mason, 1993). Closely associated with the findings of children's vulnerability to abuse has been the evidence of the extent to which individual children in the child welfare system have been denied opportunity to have their voices heard and to participate in decision making. Children and adults who as children have been in care, have identified the way in which their attempts to speak out and voice their wishes and opinions have been and continue to be ignored or trivialised by their caretakers. Some of the evidence has indicated that on occasions children have been victimised within the protection system, as a direct consequence of attempting to disclose abuse. (Cashmore et al.; Mason, 1993; Owen, 1996; Community Services Commission, 1994/5). The exposure of the extent to which abuse occurs within the child welfare system, serves to focus attention on the way in which children are subordinated to adult power and challenges the rhetoric that child protection and child welfare policies are implemented in children's best interests.


The powerlessness of children in those systems designed specifically for their protection, reflects the powerlessness of children more generally. The powerlessness of children, and the difficulties children have in being heard is not limited to the child welfare system, but is characteristic of other institutions in our society, such as schools. Children are a muted group, denied participation in major political and legal systems. Moira Rayner has summarised the subordinate position of children within the broader Australian society:

Children 'are a large uninfluential section of the community. They do not have access to the means of exerting power, or protecting their own vulnerability. They are restricted in the extent to which they can make decisions about their own lives. They do not play any part in the processes which determine the policies which affect them. They, unlike other subjects of discrimination, are peculiarly unable to organise themselves politically'. (1991:36)

Rayner also recognises the way in which the powerlessness of children is institutionalised in social policy when she notes: 'But there is something more at work. Even the concerns of those adults who advocate for children and young people have a low political priority'. (ibid:36)

Children's marginalisation and invisibility in social policy arenas is so complete that their lack of participation is rarely noticed. When children are recognised in social policies it is usually as dependents of adult family members, rather than persons in their own rights. Writers such as Makrinotti, identify the way in which the ideology of familism' oppresses children. Makrinotti employs the concept of familism' to describe the way in which policies for children are typically subsumed under other policies. He notes that childhood is fused with the institution of the family, in the process of familiarization', so that 'children and their needs cannot be defined independently of those of the family, nor can their needs be realized without the family... they do not exist as a distinct social entity' but are conceptualised as minors or dependents' (1984:283). The assumption that children are dependent 'whatever their age' is basic to the way in which childhood tends to be viewed as 'an undifferentiated category of all those under 16 or 18 years old' ' (Morrow, 1995:224).

In western society obligations to and control of children are shared between family and society, based on the 'mutual interest in the continuation of both family and society'. In the negotiations between family and state which occur in the development and implementation of social policy, children are generally not participants (Shamgar-Handelman, 1994:253). Family policies are an example of the way in which it is assumed that children's needs will be met as dependents within the family context, with adults mediating their needs. Consequently, it is not deemed necessary for children, unlike the elderly, to be ensured of a basic standard of living (Makrinotti, 1994:278).

Assumptions about the dependency of children are reflected in and have particular relevance for, those social policies which specifically focus on children. As Skolnick has stated, in child welfare and child protection policies 'the rhetoric of child-centredness obscures the reality of childhood as a dependent and subordinate status' (Skolnick, quoted in Morrow, 1995:208). Child welfare and child protection policies typically reinforce familism in two ways - through surveillance of non-normative families and through the principle of placing children from families which have broken down, according to an hierarchial order of policy options, which consider alternative familial care as the most desirable and non-familial care as the least desirable - irrespective of children's own attitudes to placement (Mowbray and Mason, 1993).

Children are marginalised in social policy and child protection discourse by what Rayner refers to as a 'refusal to take children seriously' (1991:37). This trivialisation of children is reflected in decision making concerning their lives. In cases where children are considered at risk' in their own home, child protection experts mediate and transfer parental power between adults, with negligible, if any, participation by the children concerned. Even in the Family Court, Rayner notes where there are provisions for children's wishes to be taken into account, these wishes may be over-ridden. The usual basis for over-riding children's wishes is adult attitudes of distrust of the evidence of children. Children's statements are typically challenged for truthfulness and contamination in a way that rarely occurs with adult statements.

The reasons why children are seldom listened to, or when they are heard, why their views are not taken seriously has been identified by Melton. These reasons are based on the belief that children are 'so incompetent that they do not know what they really want or need' and the perception of children as objects or possessions whose views don't really matter (Melton, 1987).


The marginalisation of children by social policies and the emphasis on their lack of competency as a reason for excluding them from participating in decisions that concern them, can be attributed to the dominance of the paradigm which has been referred to by Speier as the adult ideological viewpoint' (1973). According to this view children are believed to be dependent on adults, as 'part of a natural order', and adults are considered to have a 'natural right to exert power over children' (Qvortrup, et al.,1994:5). This perspective, central to positivist social science theorising and research on children, has formed the modern western view of childhood and is characterised by the formulation of general rules about child development. These general rules have the effect of objectifying and decontextualising understanding of children.

The key disciplines in propagating the adult ideological perspective have been psychology and sociology. This perspective is also central in other social science disciplines such as anthropology and education. These disciplines depict children as incomplete beings, or 'becomings'. They are described as society's future, as learners - recipients of adult input, and objects of adult actions and adult research.

Much of the literature of both psychology and sociology, considers childhood principally as a stage on the road to adulthood - adulthood having normative status. The construction of children as developing' beings, which has been crucial to theorising within this paradigm, is premised on development as 'an inevitable and invariant process driven by a biologically rooted structure which the child inherits' (Archard, 1993:35). Childhood is studied as a state of immaturity, and the immaturity is synonymous with passivity and dependency.

It is developmental psychology which has explained the nature of children. Freud and the major cognitive psychologists Erikson and Piaget, all characterised childhood development as an orderly, linear progress from incompetence to competence (i.e. adulthood). Freud for example, described adulthood as the successful resolution of the psycho-sexual stages of childhood - the child being 'nothing more than a homonculus, a primitive form of the complex and higher being represented by man' (Freud, 1913:107 quoted in Neustadter, 1989:209). Piaget, like Freud, expressed the idea that children were lower on the evolutionary scale than adults with the statement that ' since the intellectual pre-history of human societies may remain forever unknown to us, we must study the formation of these notions in the child, thus returning to a kind of mental embryology' (quoted in Neustadter, 1913:206; 1975:4). Sociological accounts of childhood accepted the 'scientific construction of the irrationality', naturalness' and universality' of childhood dominant in psychological theory' (Prout and James, 1990:12). These concepts were translated during the 1950s directly into sociological accounts of childhood in the form of theories of socialisation. This occurred through the incorporation into socialisation theory of the mechanism of internalisation (Alanen, 1988).

In sociological literature children and childhood have essentially been defined in relation to the dominant social institutions - as future citizens to be culturally assimilated by and through these institutions. Parsons exemplifies this approach when he refers to socialisation of children as being about steps towards maturity 'up to the level of adulthood' (Parsons, 1965, cited in Neustadter, 1989:203). More contemporary sociologists have claimed 'socialization is an essential part of the process of becoming fully human' (Berger and Berger, 1972:6).

These theories place the responsibility for socialisation on the family, primarily the mother. Social policies based on familism reinforce the emphasis in these theories. There are two associated aspects of the way in which these policies have been implemented. Firstly, mothers are constantly reminded in a variety of ways, of their responsibilities to ensure that their children follow normal' developmental patterns. This responsibility is monitored through many of the social institutions of society, including the school and health systems. Child protection is a critical mechanism for imposing the developmental and thereby adult ideological perspectives, particularly through practices to protect children from neglect. Here, parents are blamed for behaviour which results in lacks or deficits in development possibilities for their children.

Secondly, adults are assumed more competent than children to identify their needs. For example where children have formally been given the opportunity to participate in decision making as in the United Kingdom Children Act 1989 evidence indicates that judges still assert the right to reject children's wishes and thereby deny their competencies in making decisions, on the basis of a particular adult's construction of what is best for the individual child's welfare (Bell, 1993). In this way conceptualising childhood as a period of dependency and therefore vulnerability, justifies paternalistic actions designed to promote their best interests.


Some sociologists have challenged the adult ideological perspective. In particular they have exposed the adultcentricism inherent in the conceptualisation of children as 'incomplete - immature, irrational, incompetent, asocial, acultural' and of adults as 'complete - mature, rational, competent, social and autonomous, unless they are acting-like-children''. (Mackay, 1974, 28)

While most critics accept that physical immaturity of children is a 'biological fact of life' (Prout and James, 1990:7), they argue against the positivist reliance on biology, the implied negativity associated with immaturity and the way in which it contributes to a construction of childhood, as necessarily a time of incompetency, weakness and passivity. Waksler (1986) argues that developmental theorists in interpreting immaturity as underdevelopment and a lack of competency, imply a negativity so that children are considered as incomplete and being precognitive is considered as a lack. In actual fact, as Morrow (1995) argues, physical dependency diminishes during the period typically regarded as childhood. It is replaced with socially determined dependency, based on economic and other factors. Contemporary social policies explicitly increase the period of such dependency.

The developmental approach in relying on biology and applying the concept of incompetence in an undifferentiated way to young persons of various ages, ignores the factors which provide a context for individual childhoods. In particular the developmental model ignores the interconnections between dependency and power associated with social, economic and cultural factors. The consequences for child protection practice of this conceptualisation of childhood dependency as weakness, are paternalistic responses to children, which ignore the significance of power as it is affected by factors of class, race and gender. Further, the focus on childhood as a biologically induced time of vulnerability, deflects attention from the fact that this vulnerability is a response to a context in which there is threat, and increases rather than decreases the opportunity for oppression of children (Kitzinger, 1988:81).

When a structural analysis is applied to the construction of childhood, the developmental perspective can be seen to place adults and children in asymmetrical relationships, with the weak child necessarily subordinate to the more powerful adult (Alanen, 1988). Alanen redefines this perspective in sociological terms as an elitist perspective, whereby those who have structural power, exercise this power over children through the socialization process, in order to influence the outcome of reproduction of themselves. She draws attention to the other side of elitism inherent in the adult ideological perspective:

'As a consequence of the viewpoint's inherent elitism and functionalism the interests of children as participants in their own socialization are effectively excluded, presumably on the assumption that they more or less converge with those of the elites. This models children as passive objects and victims of influences external to them, unable and unwilling to resist. The outcomes of the socialization process ...can therefore be accounted for merely by referring to constraints in children's environments.' (1988:58)

The focus of the adult ideological perspective on children as subject to developmental principles, abstracts families with children from their social contexts - in particular the context of structural inequalities. The developmental approach in relying on biology and applying the concept of incompetence in an undifferentiated way to young persons of various ages, ignores the factors which provide a context for childhood. Disregarded is the significance of the interconnections between dependency and power associated with social, economic and cultural factors. A consequence of this abstraction of children can be seen in evaluation of child protection policy, such as that by Thorpe which indicates that child protection functions to 'abstract children from the practical realities of their day to day existence which more often than not are dictated by parental income, housing and the cultural and social practices which are determined by class and ethnicity' (Thorpe, 1994:200).


The alternative paradigm for understanding childhood is based on firstly, recognising childhood as a cultural construct and secondly, making comparisons between women and children's oppression.

From an examination of the history of childhood literature, childhood emerges as a cultural construct. This examination indicates that while childhood as a concept may be defined and bounded by age, it is otherwise nebulous, changing over time and across cultures and also according to ideological perspectives (Dencik, 1989). From historical studies emerges knowledge of modern childhood as a construct, the 'result of decisions and actions of particular historical social actors in their economic, political and cultural struggles' (Alanen, 1988:64). Analysis of childhood as a social construct, highlights the way in which the immaturity of children is understood and made meaningful as a fact of culture. It is these 'facts of culture' in contrast to the facts of biology which may vary and which can be said 'to make of childhood a social institution' (Prout & James, 1990:7). Understanding children's immaturity as a fact of culture, challenges the assumption of children as inferior to adults as implied by developmental theory.

Also illuminating are comparisons between the way in which adults associate children's biological immaturity with their subordination as lesser beings and the way in which women's biology has been categorized by men, as a factor causing women to be defined as necessarily subordinate to men. An analogy can be made with the way in which children's immaturity and incompetence is trivialised, in contrast with mature, competent adults and the way in which women's emotionality' has been trivialised, in contrast with men's rationality'. As women have focussed on gender to challenge their subordination to men, so it is necessary to focus on generation rather than biology, to understand children as different from, but not inferior to or lesser than, others. An analogy can be made with the way in which children's immaturity and incompetence is viewed as negative in contrast with mature, competent adults and the way in which women's emotionality' has been viewed as negative, in contrast with men's 'rationality'.

The new paradigm for conceptualising children, promoted by some social theorists, gives priority to the 'personhood' of children, to their 'lived experience' (James and Prout, 1995:92) to them as 'human beings' rather than as 'human becomings' (Waksler, 1991). This paradigm views children as acting on, as well as being acted upon, by the social world. It posits that they are 'possessed of individual agency, as competent social actors and interpreters of the world' and that they have 'complex, fractal and multi-subjective selves.' (James and Prout, 1995:90-95).

In summary this alternative paradigm considers children as having conceptual autonomy, being subjects rather than objects and able to contribute actively to decisions. Individual children are placed within contexts which take account of age, gender, class, race and ability.

As a consequence of this paradigm, some policy analysts are beginning to recognise that we need to both add children to our thinking and to inform our thinking on social policy by a children's perspective, but the method of doing this is not clear. Unlike women, children do not have access to knowledge production or to the academic forums in which women's issues received an important focus. Attempting to listen to children and to contribute to social policy debates from their perspective challenges us as individuals. Our concept of our own adulthood is generally based on recognition of our achievement of this status, that is, our distance from childhood. Also, as noted by Mandell (1986), taking children seriously is to risk being considered as a fool and being ridiculed by our peers.


The alternative paradigm of childhood, in questioning that dependency is a satisfactory justification for paternalistic decision making, challenges child protection policymakers to give direct voice to children. As with giving voice to other oppressed groups, giving voice to children will involve altering adult institutionalised ways of behaving, to accommodate the difference inherent in contributions by children.

In recognising childhood as a cultural construct, the alternative paradigm implies a need to broaden child protection policy to respond to children generally, not just to those children traditionally highlighted, frequently due to severe social disadvantage as at risk'. Kitzinger provides some strategies relevant to implementing the alternate paradigm. She states that acknowledging all children as oppressed involves recognising that it is the very institution of childhood which makes individual children vulnerable. From this perspective, child abuse is considered not as an anomaly, a problem for some children, rather child abuse is considered as built into the way in which we define childhood - it is considered a 'problem of this patriarchal society'. (1990:177)

Reconceptualising childhood in a way which emphasises the conceptual autonomy of children, also implies the importance of developing child protection strategies that acknowledge and reinforce children's own strategies, identifying and challenging their powerlessness. This reconceptualisation would promote the redefinition of protective strategies, so that they would be about talking openly with children on issues of power and thinking, in terms of 'oppression' rather than vulnerability , 'liberation' rather than protection' ' (ibid:177). Child protection practice would be about joining with children in a struggle to increase their proactive options and transform the social and political worlds in which the institution of childhood exists (Kitzinger, 1990).


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