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Childhood representations are derived from media as well as policies and laws, the two being interrelated. Media images produce influential perceptions about children that may be translated into ideologies and through the same laws and policies influence children’s well being and material needs. Media also highlights that the identity of childhood as a social construction is very different to adulthood. It is depicted as marginalised and incapable. With the introduction of many forms of technology in the past 20 years it is not surprising that media now plays an even greater integral role in shaping childhoods, mine being no exception. All this power exerted by media calls for some form of analysis.
In other instances, the childhood figure is overlapped with that of animals, which is evident in the film, ‘L’Enfant Sauvage’ (1969), where Victoire, the wild boy, adapted himself to an uncivilised situation (Mills, 2000).
The notion of innocence of children is commonly portrayed in children’s books and films such as ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’, where Cedric symbolises innocence and beauty. Children are deemed to be protected from ‘secret knowledges’, namely sexuality and death. In fact, until recently, girls were portrayed as asexual and ignorant of sex (Humphries, Mack & Perks, 1988). In contrast, the premature exhibition and sexualisation of young girls and the need of protection of their innocence is highlighted in the film ‘Painted Babies’ (1993), a film about young girls in beauty pageants (Robinson & Davies, 2008).
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The notion ‘children as vulnerable and in need of protection’, is outlined in Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’, where Nancy saves Oliver from Bill Sykes’ physical abuse. The abduction and consequent murder of the young James Bulger is another shocking example vulnerability of children.
On the other hand, children are also characterised as being autonomous. In ‘Harry Potter’, Harry epitomises this perception in literature in his fight against evil. The feisty independent character Anne Shirley in ‘Anne of Green Gables’ is another example. Girl power was more related to popular music with phenomena such as the ‘Spice Girls’ who promoted this neo-liberal feminist identity in teenage girls in the 90s.
The novel ‘Coral Island’ depicts children as apprentices where they develop skills, realise their dreams, and move on to adulthood. However, contemporary Prose fiction works portray children as a distinct group from adults. These works are realistic, sometimes dark, and child-centred exemplified by by Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ and Anne Finne’s ‘Madame Doubtfire’.
The images of children presented by the media are multi-faceted and sometimes contrasting, evident in the film ‘Leon’, where Mathilda, is portrayed as mature and independent but still perceived as a vulnerable child in need of protection in Leon’s eyes (ICS, 2010).
It should be questioned as to how accurate cultural artefacts actually are. In children’s literature, Hunt implies that authors depict childhood as they perceive it, and therefore not a true reflection. ‘Children’s books are therefore likely to portray attitudes to childhood rather than any individual or culturally agreed childhood’ (Hunt, 2009). Its power was in the image it left behind, imitated by some children in real life. Nowadays, children are not as influenced by contemporary literature. They have become more knowledgeable and sceptical, the ‘so-called active reader’. ‘Texts for these children have lost their power’ (Hunt, 2009). Readers and viewers may interpret messages in different ways according to their identities and divisions such as age, gender, social class and ethnicity. Globalization of media brings about a certain degree of standardization whereby children in different parts of the world are being exposed to the same stimulus and subsequently start showing some common traits. Moreover, media itself exercises a degree of control on how messages it delivers are interpreted. This is called the hypodermic syringe model. Messages are not only delivered but new meanings are produced bringing about the double hermeneutic phenomenon.
Representational practices play a crucial role in influencing the material lives of children. Prominent music artists have used media to promote the awareness of different races, The most well-known event was ‘Live Aid’ in 1985 highlighting the plight of starving children in Africa.
Media can be a strong influence on health issues in children, evident in the recent significant increase of the illness anorexia nervosa in girls may have been as a result of T.V. and magazines portraying a very slim figure to be the accepted image as well as the explosion of obesity in children. It is estimated that 20 % of children in UK are overweight (James & James, 2004). Consequently there is now a drive from all concerned to promote more healthy-eating programme such as Jamie Oliver’s T.V. series.
The film ‘scum’ by Alan Clarice 1979 portrays how a borstal in UK further brutalises young offenders. Its huge cultural impact was a contributory factor in the 1982 reform that replaced borstals to youth custody centres This is an example how the media can influence the institutions of the State (Mills, 2000).
Today’s children are more independent, inquisitive, creative, and can use media effectively, forming part of the ‘net’ generation of childhood. In fact Katz (1997) regards these children able to ‘create their own cultures and communities’ (Buckingham, 2009: 126). The use of internet is invaluable for these children in the field of education and research. Also, through the introduction of social networks, they are able to communicate freely with one another. There are also some concerns, as children are at risk of exposure to pornography, violence and cyber-stalking. Also, it is argued that they tend to spend more time confined to their room resulting in less family integration. A study between children’s everyday activities and the media showed that among media, television was the prime mover in families’ lives. This was done through quantitative and qualitative methods using questionnaires, interviews, as well as new methods (Tufte, 2003). Media technology is also influenced by gender and class identities. This is highlighted by the fact that the majority of computer games are played by boys and also that, middle class children have more access to computers than their working class peers.
Over the years, different media has shaped my childhood, such as television programmes, magazines, music, the internet, pamphlets, books and billboards. As a young child, ‘Care Bears’ and ‘Barney’, were amongst my favourite programmes. These were education and instilled in me the values of caring and tolerance. Other films include ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Cinderella’, by providing images of princesses and happy endings which have caused me to dream as a child. Another character worth quoting is ‘Miss Honey’ in the book ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl who presented as a role model. In fact, at seventeen years of age, I decided to become a teacher, and have always strived to be kind and gentle just like ‘Miss Honey’. A Maltese media campaign to keep the environment clean, symbolised by a small hedgehog, ‘Xummiemu’, was set up, when I was growing up. These billboards, posters and magazines influenced me in respecting the environment. Messages on billboards such as the advert ‘Smoking kills’, on our main roads, had put me off smoking completely and never smoked a single cigarette in my life. As a teenager, the internet was used as a useful source of information in my school assignments. Through ‘MSN Messenger’ and ‘Skype’, I have stayed in touch with my friends and relatives who live abroad.
The internet is unique in that it is an interactive form of media allowing children’s global communication and the promotion of their creativity and spontaneity. I feel close to this culture which is critical of what media portrays even when the same media seems to have taken over our lives.
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Buckingham, D. (2009). New media, new childhoods? Children’s changing cultural environment in the age of digital technology in M. J. Kehily (Ed.), An introduction to Childhood Studies (2nd Edition) (pp. 124-138). Berkshire: Open University Press.
Humphries, S., Mack, J. & Perks, R. (1988). A Century of Childhood, London: Sidgwick & Jackson.
Hunt, P. (2009). Children’s literature and childhood in M. J. Kehily (Ed.), An introduction to Childhood Studies (2nd Edition) (pp. 50-69). Berkshire: Open University Press.
ICS (2010). Sociology of Childhood, Study Guide 1. Glasgow: ICS.
James, A. & James, A. L. (2004). Constructing Childhood: Theory, Policy and Social Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
Katz, J. (1997). Virtuous Reality: How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits and Blockheads like William Bennett. New York: Random House.
Mills, J. & Mills, R. (2000) Childhood Studies: A Reader in perspectives of childhood, Routledge, New York.
Mills, R. (2000). Perspectives of Childhood in J. Mills & R. Mills (Eds.), Childhood Studies: A Reader in perspectives of childhood (pp. 7-37). London: Routledge.
Robinson, K. H. & Davies, C. (2008). SHE’S KICKIN’ ASS, THAT’S WHAT SHE’S DOING! Deconstructing Childhood ‘Innocence’ in Media Representations. Australian Feminist Studies, 23, 343- 358.
Tufte, B. (2003). Children, media and consumption. Advertising & Marketing to Children, October-December, 69-76.
Discuss the role ‘family’ plays in shaping childhood. Give examples of cultures within a family structure and reflect on your own culture.
There is general consensus that family does shape childhood ‘from the first minute its parent(s) start to interact with it in the context of a wider culture.’ (Gittens, 2009: 36). The family is the foundation of social stability and the primary means of social reproduction. This institution moulds the child through education, morals, values & beliefs (James & James, 2004). ‘Family’ besides the traditional ‘nuclear family’ also includes lone parent, gay/lesbian, extended families, and cohabitation. Indeed, the family is instrumental in shaping the child to become an integral part of society (ICS, 2010b).
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Childhoods are dependent on the identities and positions of the child’s family, as these will have different structures, resulting in different experiences (ICS, 2010a). In recent years delayed child bearing means that children are less likely to share the companionship of siblings or wider kin. Single parent families are the second highest risk factor, after unemployment, for children to live in poverty (Clarke, 1996). Lower social class, unemployment, alcoholism, and drug abuse have serious consequences on children’s well-being in the shape of poverty, poor social conditions, mental health problems and physical abuse. Children from minor ethnic families may be disadvantaged as a result of poorer housing conditions and lower pay as well as an increased prevalence of chronic diseases such as rickets and T.B (James & James, 2004).
Also, parents’ lifestyles may affect children’s lives directly. Smoking in families is detrimental to children’s health, significantly increasing asthma in their children. Nowadays, most parents work leaving less time to prepare meals, which may result in children eating more ‘junk food’. Armstrong, Hill and Secker (2000) argue the beneficial effects of parental affection on the child’s well-being. In comparison family breakdowns, increasing in number, are a cause of stress and mental problems in children (James & James, 2004; Armstrong et al., 2000).
Children’s identity is seen as a passive experience of ‘being parented’. Children possess a ‘Double Status’; the kinship status as ‘the child’ and the age-based status as ‘the minor’. The link between womanhood and childhood is focused on children’s needs discourses (Lawler, 2000). According to research, the function of the family is specific to the fulfilment of gender-based roles, where females are a source of care and expression, and males the main source of income (ICS, 2010a: 15; MacNaughton & Smith, 2009). Parents act as role models by setting examples which are crucial in shaping childhood. Children also learn gender roles from the family. For example, if cooking is done only by the mother they might associate it exclusively with females (MacNaughton & Smith, 2009).
State laws and policies use the family to implement and control children. The state also uses the family ‘as an ally in the battle for social control’ (James & James, 2004: 191)) and increasingly regulates children’s lives (James & James, 2004). Development of ‘family friendly’ employment practice through social benefits, results in more stable families, better support of children during their education, and reduced levels of delinquency (James & James, 2004).
The child is regarded as the object of legal rulings with children’s rights generally overruled by their parents claiming to act ‘in the best interest of the child’, thus their agency being denied (James & James, 2004: 201). The effective voice of children in family proceedings is well documented, both in the Children Act and the UNCRC. However, the implementation to date is another matter, even welfare professionals view children both as ‘carefree and powerless’ (ICS, 2010b: 45). In fact, family law in England and Wales classifies a child as ‘a person with a disability’ (James & James, 2004: 200).
In every culture lies ‘marriage, residence, family size and composition, family status and role, family power and authority, family communication that are quite universal. These elements of family structure in vary from one society to another (Uddin, 2009: 438).
The representation of the family structure in Western culture is usually portrayed as a nuclear family composed of two siblings. This model is still portrayed as ‘ideal’ according to mainstream parents’ websites such as bounty.com. Media has always portrayed an image of the Western family. Nowadays, it brings us a variety of different family structures including gay couples and single parents.
In Muslim cultures, there are clearer gender demarcations where all family affairs are decided by the senior male member, leaving other family members fully dependent on their decisions without any say (Uddin, 2009). The male is usually the bread winner whilst women take on the ’emotional role’ such as child rearing and household chores (Uddin, 2007). Another feature of this community is the large family size, thus an extended family structure is adopted to ensure adequate family support. Family structures in Muslim Western communities vary from those in more traditional societies as the former face lifestyle choices which are not available to the latter. Middle-class, though not working-class, Muslims have expectations and a level of education comparable to non-Muslims (Abbas, 2003; Ahmad, 2001). Muslims regard their Islamic faith as fundamental to their identity. However, Sikhs and Hindus consider education to be their main priority, allowing greater occupational opportunities, class mobility, integration and acceptance (Abbas, 2003).
On a more personal note, I grew up in a traditional Maltese Roman Catholic nuclear family consisting of four members; my parents, my older sister and myself. This is the most common structure in Malta. My father is a doctor and my mother is a housewife who gave up her job as a secretary to raise us. My parents raised us striking a balance between being open to change but holding onto the strong values of Maltese culture and Roman Catholic beliefs. These beliefs form an integral role in our way of life and shape our views on family. Family authority has always been shared between my parents. However, they have always valued our opinions, even as children. This has created an open communicative relationship between us.
The family has influenced many aspects of my life. Due to my large extended family, I grew up surrounded by younger children, playing with and teaching them. This sparked my interest in teaching Early Years. The short distances facilitated the formation of strong family bonds. We live in a typical neighbourhood where people lend a helping hand when needed, though can be nosy. Despite Malta being a small island, we are not insular as we are influenced by other cultures, namely British and Italian. We are multi-lingual and have a Western outlook. We are also influenced by foreign family ties, my grandmother being British. Our culture motivates us to maximise our potential by pursuing a higher education, particularly a University degree. Opportunities are few and competition is high. Ambition is instilled from an early age, and expectations are high. I form part of a very close- knit family which is dependable and supportive. We consider this to be our role and responsibility to each other. I enjoy the security and stability of our family whilst still enjoying my independence and autonomy.
All the aforementioned aspects are crucial as the resources and environment of the family have a direct influence on how children and adolescents deal with emotions, relationships as well as their potential for future success (Wen, 2008). Nonetheless, it is fundamental to perceive the child as an individual actor whose needs must be considered in the context of their own childhood and not merely as an extension of the needs of all of those who share the status of being ‘children’.
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