Whose Childhood is it Anyway? Giving Children a Voice.
Post by Carol Long
“When in this society, do we truly become adult?” So asked the columnist Caitlin Moran in a recent Times newspaper article. Over the next few months it will be a very relevant question for me as I start the data collection for my PhD research. This will involve meeting with families who have a child with a learning disability, including the child or young person, their parent(s), and brother(s) and sister(s). My study will seek to understand better the experiences of the supports and services available to children and their families to achieve a good quality of life. The societal stigma surrounding learning disability has not gone away, and nationally where funding for children’s services is already perceived to be the “Cinderella”, learning disability provision for children seems even lower in the list of priorities.
My research is about children so it must include them and particularly those who may have challenges with communication who are rarely given a voice. I hope to learn more about their world using a tool called ©Talking Mats, specifically designed to support those with communication difficulties, helping them to increase their capacity to communicate effectively about things that matter to them. I will compare the young people’s realities with the rhetoric of public policy.
In designing my methodology, it struck me how often I was counselled by others that involving children would be difficult and getting it through ethics would be a nightmare. With either a literal or metaphorical sucking through their teeth I’d then be advised to steer away from it. Contrary to this however, my supervisors, as well as those at my nine-month [PhD progress] review, were hugely encouraging and took the opposite view. “You must involve children!” they said. Thankfully, I now have the required ethical approval and it went reasonably straight forwardly, possibly working professionally with children for over 30 years helped me to navigate this.
There is a serious point at issue here though. It is an absolute given for me that research involving children needs to give them voice. It is my belief that as academics and professionals, we have to overcome our nervousness about this and stop thinking it is all too difficult. One might argue it is more unethical to shy away from hearing what children have to say because of our own lack of confidence about what is involved, making excuses that they are too young or immature.
Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (UNCRC) emphasises the basic human right for children to have their own opinions, and most importantly for these opinions to matter. The convention is clear; children’s views should be considered and given due weight when parents and professionals are making decisions about things which involve that child’s life. These should not be dismissed just because of the child’s tender age (or disability?). That said Article 12 is still worded in such a way that it talks of capabilities and competencies thus leaving it for adults to make the final decisions. My study seeks to better understand the hopes, wishes and aspirations of individual children with learning disabilities and how these are supported. How will my findings be meaningful if I don’t ask them? As one young person commented to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) in 2019,
“people don't have high enough aspirations for young people with SEND: I don't want people to tell me that I need to be realistic! I just need a chance to try different things and then I can decide."
Thankfully our understanding of childhood is changing, and this is mostly progressive with the days of children “should be seen and not heard” long over. Childhood though still tends to be seen as a form of adult apprenticeship, a transitional stage where children ultimately develop an understanding of the social world, but that their understanding of this throughout much of childhood is not fully formed. Cockburn (1998) cited by Wyness (2019) argues that this makes it difficult for children to be fully constituted members of the social world, resulting in a lack of status within childhood which leads to the child being kept out of meaningful decision making. It creates an age patriarchy of adult domination, keeping children subordinate and dependent (Gittins, 1998). This, when coupled with some models of childhood disability where the child is seen as lacking capacity to understand or make decisions, can lead to a basic disfranchisement of children with learning disabilities meaning their voice isn’t heard, or their views never sought. It is this age patriarchy or “adultism” which I want to avoid in my research.
Being the eternal optimist, I believe societal understanding on the individual agency of children and the recognition of their right to be involved in decision making are gradually changing for the better. This is underpinned by conventions like the UNCRC. I have always been a passionate advocate for children’s rights, so these changes are to the good! However, this optimism is tinged with some caution. I recognise that childhood in the West is dominated by developmentalism rooted in psychological theories such as those of Bowlby, Erikson, Piaget, and Vygotsky. I have seen this directly played out in in my prior professional life in social work. These portray the child as a biologically immature individual who has to reach various developmental milestones ultimately achieving maturity usually in their early twenties. If they fail to meet these milestones they continue to be perceived as too immature and this undermines their sense of agency.
For the child with learning disabilities though there is a double whammy; they are children, so innately “immature”, additionally when not meeting the expected milestones of children of a similar age or achieving them in a stop/start way they continue to be infantilised. This affects how their views are sought or valued, with adults, usually their parents, speaking for them. Professional attitudes towards learning disability with echoes of the stigma of earlier times affects beliefs about what the child is capable of, and this along with understandable parental protectiveness or “cotton woolling” to keep their offspring safe, can make the right to be heard very challenging for the disabled child to achieve.
It is giving children agency that has driven my research design, despite others’ warnings about ethics! I understand my study will be small in the great scheme of things, but I figure if we are braver in academia about really talking to children about their lives and opinions, we will build a richer understanding, so I want to do my bit. At the start of this blog I quoted Caitlin Moran asking “When in this society, do we truly become adult? And her answer? “It depends on who you are asking”. When it comes to my research if by asking and listening to children, I can make just some difference in that regard, then for me it is a job well done.
Follow Carol on Twitter: @Carol_Long