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Childhood experiences differ from person to person in many ways. One’s personal experience of childhood is likely to affect their understanding of childhood and their ideal vision of childhood. When I reminisce about childhood, the ideal vision of children frolicking around the park, having fun and carefree days comes to mind. As described by Rousseau, childhood is a brief period of sanctuary before encountering the perils and hardships of adulthood. This line by Rousseau: “Why fill with bitterness the fleeting early days of childhood, days which will no more return for them than for you?” encapsulates my ideal vision of childhood, a time of pure innocence that will never be recaptured and should be the best time of our lives (Hutchison & Charlesworth 2000; Wood 2003). Brought up in Singapore as the youngest child in a family of four, my childhood experience was built upon an “Asian construction of childhood” with beliefs and ideas of Asian cultural influence. However, being the youngest child made me the perpetual “baby” of the family, with constant protection and showering of care. Coupled with the media’s constant representation of the innocent child through various movies and images, my view of childhood is inevitably skewed towards this image.
The image of innocence recognizes a child’s vulnerability and immaturity, reflecting the need to provide care and protection in order to preserve the physical and spiritual purity of the child. James & Prout (1990) recognized that while childhood innocence is a socially constructed phenomenon, biological immaturity is a fact of childhood. Therefore in this image, childhood is viewed separately from adulthood, with the responsibility of the young and innocent firmly in the hands of adults. It is further supported by the code of ethics in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), where adults are in a position of power, with the expectation of making decisions in the best interests of the child due to their innocence and perceived incapability of making the right decisions. In my experience of childhood, my brother and I were kept on constant adult supervision without the need or option to make any decisions. Everything was taken care of by Linda, our domestic worker from the Philippines and she was tasked to follow instructions and daily routines set out for us by my parents. Rousseau noted that children are born into an original natural state of essential goodness. However, their closeness with nature and natural goodness is being threatened or degraded by culture. In my infant years, protecting us from the ‘corruption’ of society was exactly what my parents wanted by limiting our exposure to sources of corruption such as violence in music, television and games. Postman (1983) highlighted a shift away from child innocence due to the myriad of media universally available to children. In recent years, the proliferation of technology and wider exposure to the Internet further deepened my view of the need to protect a child’s innocence. With more children playing games on internet-ready devices like the iPads, the ‘corruption’ of society slowly creeping into a child’s environment even without stepping out of home.
While the image of innocence seem ideal at the infant stage to protect their innocence, upon further consideration, critics highlighted that continual treatment of a child in this view may hamper their development. . This is where I feel the limiting of experience and of opportunity may be critical and damaging for the child. As highlighted by Woodrow (1999), maintaining this focus as a child matures will deny them agency and inhibits the potential development of skills required to handle challenges in the future. With adults perceived as having power and responsibility over and for children, this raises another debatable point of whether they are always acting in the best interest of the child. In this construct of childhood innocence, Hutchison and Charlesworth (2000) argue that childhood becomes sentimentalized, while Docket (1998) feels that this nostalgic view stops us taking children seriously.
Upon reflecting on my initial understanding and experience of the image of innocence, perhaps childhood consists of transitional phases consisting of multiple definitional perspectives. A transition into the frame of child development is a solution to progressively give a child more agency and Piaget’s view on childhood encapsulates it. Piaget noted the conception of childhood as certain transition stages of their lives – at about 18 months, 7 years and 11 or 12 years, where a child will develop from immaturity to rationality, increasing their ability to understand their surroundings and have new capabilities to undertake certain tasks. The child is now viewed in the image of an embryo adult, seen as ‘human becomings’ rather than ‘human beings’ in preparation for the future (Hutchison & Charlesworth 2000). At the early stages, as the child is positioned as less knowing, it is the responsibility of parents to use their own knowledge or resources to groom and nurture the abilities of their children at home. Upon attending school, the child is subjected to a politically influenced curriculum designed by teachers, which pushes them to achieve results and judged on standardized tests (Woodrow 1999). In relating my childhood experience in this perspective, grooming a child to undertake certain tasks is a challenge and very much depends on whether the agentic child is willing to accept it. At the age of 7, I was enrolled for swimming lessons but strongly refused to do so due to my immaturity and lack of understanding about it. However, after carefully explaining to me the importance of swimming as a life skill 2 years later, the increase in rationality and readiness led me to acquire new capabilities. In other instances, I was coerced to accompany my older brother in attending other courses beyond my will, and such scenarios depict images of a tyrannical adult as opposed to loving guides. Therefore, the adult must take special consideration when faced with such situations, as it may result in the poor emotional connection between children and adults as noted by Hoffman (2000) within this construct of childhood. In addition to this, the adult will have to constantly ensure a child’s needs for emotional stability, security, confidence, self-esteem are met.
These images are never stable or unitary and their meanings are contestable. It is easy to over-simplify and homogenize the idea of childhood, and the children who go through that phase of life, ignoring cultural influence that children experience which differentially produce conceptions of childhood (Woodrow 1999). Everyone’s childhood is a unique phase of life. The only commonality is how one’s childhood is a determining factor of how their life shapes out to be, and the way it will influence childhood for their kids. To a child, what matters most is parents, as they will learn everything from them.
The underlying idea of childhood is complex, and the role that adults play is rather confusing. The UN CRC states that all children have a right to speak freely and to be listened to by adults over decisions that affect them. While we recognize that a child has the right to be heard, and that they should have a say in their plans for the future, just to how much extent should they be given that freedom? By putting power and responsibility in the hands of children, does this confuse the role of adults and their responsibilities of shaping childhood? How will this affect an adult’s role in making decisions in the best interest of the child?
On the topic of best interest of a child, an adult should act in the best interest of the child, but what’s best for the child may not exactly be in the same view in the eyes of the child. Also, an adult may not always act in the best interest of the child but rather, the most convenient option. How then are we going to police what’s right and what’s wrong. There can be guidelines in place but whether it’s enforced in the compounds of a home is something beyond our control. At the end of the day, there’s no single correct way of raising a child, as there are way too many variables to consider. Each child is different, each parents has their own views on how to raise a child.
We are unclear who is in charge of childhood: teachers, parents, politicians, or children themselves?
Alongside listening to children, the real question we need to be asking, as parents, educators, employers and politicians, is: have we created a society that has destroyed the childhood we want for our children?
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