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Changing Childhood

This book is a constructive collection of articles which will be valuable to any parent who is attempting to think about the process of bringing up children rather than simply letting it happen. Much of the available material on the subject of a non-sexist approach in raising children is impracticable, and succeeds only in making the well-intentioned parent feel guilty, old-fashioned, and a failure. The N.I. cartoon version of the book took this approach and ignored Michele Cohen’s contribution to ‘Changing Childhood’. She begins ‘Parents must provide children with books, toys and activities specifically aimed at breaking down sex-type roles. A formula that seems simple enough to follow - or so I believed.’

The article then traces her efforts to put this formula into practice with her own son, and describes the subsequent relaxing and enlarging of her view of non-sexist child-rearing. The cracks in the theory show early. ‘D. is not a violent child, but I eventually had to buy him a gun, because the various sharp objects he used as substitutes were much more dangerous’.

The process increases her awareness of her own, and other adults’, unconscious sexual conditioning: she knows how to play with a girl’s dolls, but not with her son’s toy soldiers.

She also asks whether parents who feel strongly about non-sexist child­rearing are confusing the symptoms of sexual identification with sexual conditioning. She quotes psychoanalyst Francoise Dolto: ‘it is essential for the young child to be quite clear as to his/her sex identity, as this is crucial for the development of personal identity’. The problem for parents is how to maintain sexual identity at the same time as fighting against the behaviour patterns which this society sees as appropriate to that identity.

Michele then concludes: ‘some parents may feel so strongly about non-sexism that they are prepared to enforce it in their children. Do we really want non­sexism at any price? And if we are still bound by our own unconscious "sexist" selves, what might this "enforcing" eventually imply? More authority­subservient people? How did we get to be feminists and non-sexists, with the education and training we got? How can we encourage non-sexism without being authoritarian, without thwarting our children’s developing personality and autonomy?’

The questions are asked not in a mood of defeat; there is no implication that the fight against sexism should not continue, only that parents must take care not to over-simplify the solution, and in doing so ignore other equally important aspects of their child’s development.

In Martin Hoyles’ introduction, and in his chapter ‘Childhood in Historical Perspective’, the book’s editor maintains that the idea of childhood as a separate period of development did not exist until the seventeenth century, and then only for the rich middle and upper classes.

The New Internationalist latched onto this theme saying ‘Childhood is not as natural as you might think. In many ways it is a social creation developed to produce and process the kind of people that society wants.’ The editorial also stated that the invention of childhood has enabled adults to take away from children trust, power and responsibility, so producing ‘weak and dependent’ adults.

This ignores the different approach of Peter Fuller who, in an excellent pictorial essay, ‘Uncovering Childhood’, challenges the idea: ‘Because feudal societies denied childhood is no reason why we should reconstitute that denial as a vision for the future.’ His stress is rather upon childhood as a biolgical phase of a human being’s development, arguing that ‘only by denying the biological basis of childhood can one assume that it . . . was created when it was first acknowledged.’

Throughout Peter Fuller shows evidence that ‘men and women were conscious of children as distinct from adults even when they denied that consciousness’. ‘Childhood may have been suppressed, but as a condition it was not unknown.’

Fuller traces the presentation of childhood from the Byzantine artist to the photographers and advertisements of today, concluding that progress can only be made by accepting childhood for what it is. Doing away with the ‘invention’ of childhood by giving back equal power and responsibility to the child would in practice be a denial of one of the child’s most basic rights - the right to childhood itself. Unless the child can play freely and inconsequentially, unless the child can be cushioned by love from some of the consequences of his or her actions and experiments, then there will be no room for a child to be a child and no opportunity to use that childhood for creatively gathering the experience which enables a child to become a happy adult.

*Leslie Adamson*

New Internationalist issue 081 magazine cover This article is from the November 1979 issue of New Internationalist.
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