Thursday, 20 August 2015

Challenging Childism through Narrative Self-reflection

In previous blogs I have argued that childism is akin to sexism and racism, a prejudice against someone because of what they are: a child, a woman or a person of colour. In the case of sexism and racism the adults who are discriminated against are able to start the process of resistance by campaigning, raising awareness and arguing their case to convince those who perpetrate sexism or racism that it is unjust and demeaning of humanity. We know from history that this process of getting sexism or racism accepted as real phenomena involves great struggle and courage. The ongoing history of feminism, for example, is the story of how feminists deconstruct the patriarchal attitudes towards girls and women that creates a gendered distortion of power to the disadvantage of females. Deconstruction by feminists and anti-racists alike has led to calls for a reconstruction of society to be more equal, to end the injustices inflicted on women and people of colour. The struggle is ongoing and has gained support from those who are advantaged by such inequalities because they want to live in a more just society. Men identify as feminists and white people as anti-racist. How then do we recruit adults to oppose childism?

It is important that we do, because like women and people of colour, children are historically powerless and in the case of childism it is unrealistic to expect children to initiate and lead campaigns unsupported.  A positive advantage is that whilst only women can truly understand sexism against women and only people of colour can understand racism, when it comes to childism all human beings are capable of understanding it because we have all been children and all experienced childism at first hand. It follows that if childism is to be recognized as a prejudice then we have to raise awareness of what it is and who better to do this than adults whose lives have been shaped by it?

I am arguing that an important step on the journey to end childism is critical reflection by adults on their own experiences as children who were oppressed by childism. I am calling for adults to give their own testimony on the impact of childism on their lives because I think that will contribute to the process of raising awareness of childism and could lead to a change in the behaviour of adults towards children now. As adults we have to take responsibility for our own attitudes and behaviour towards children and we can start by reflecting on our own experiences of being children and raise our own awareness of childism’s power. If our testimony is made available in the public domain I believe it can help disrupt behaviours which are childist in outcome, if not in intent, as a step towards transforming existing social practices that impact negatively on children’s lives.

Childism renders children susceptible to injustice; we can start to uncover that injustice through our own stories of childhood. The stories will also contribute to the process of uncovering stereotypes of children that are present in the social imagination as well as being personally instructive. Narratives that help others understand how prejudice against children structures our thinking is an important way of challenging prejudice. If the stories are convincing then they will provide evidence to support the case for dismantling childism and help to change the collective social imagination which contains a myriad of prejudices and stereotypes of children.

If we wish to effect social change then we have to start with raising awareness of childism and how it affects our perceptions, attitudes and behaviours. If adults can be persuaded to engage in critical auto-ethnographic reflection on their own childhoods then it might foster a commitment to ending childism as well as helping to establish a more principled understanding of the wrong that is done to a child by childism.

In this blog I want to begin that process of critical reflection on my own childhood, how I experienced childism and the impact it had on me. I hope it will inspire others to embark on their own self-reflective journey and to make their narratives public.

Critical reflection on my childhood
I was born in 1950, and brought up in an aspiring working-class family that held values that were traditional at the time. My father was a tool-maker and my mother had worked as a typist in a typing pool before marriage. They were married for seven years before I was born and my mother focused on what she saw as her housewifely duties: cooking, cleaning etc. My father worked in a factory but had ambitions and rose to foreman and then went into partnership to set up his own small tool-making business and eventually owned his own business employing 8-10 people. He had middle-class aspirations and sought to acquire the cultural capital his own upbringing had denied him by learning French and joining MENSA and attending elocution lessons. My mother aspired to a more middle class consumer lifestyle and focused on expanding her repertoire of cooking to include ‘foreign’ dishes such as spaghetti bolognaise and food cooked with wine.

The eldest of two children, my brother and I were brought up to defer to adults and authority. My natural exuberance was frequently met with, “Children should be seen and not heard”; “don’t be cheeky”; “respect your elders”; “listen and you will learn”; “don’t be rude”. The key message was all about deference to adults. When I was naughty I expected and received punishment. Although I was only hit two or three times I was treated crossly; my mother shouted a lot and frequently threatened me, “wait until your father comes home, you’ll be in trouble.” My father indulged in heavy criticism of my character and behaviour and my appearance; I constantly felt I fell short and wasn’t good enough. When I was naughty I was sent to my room, denied food, not allowed to watch a favourite TV programme or left behind with grandparents whilst the family went off for a much looked forward to treat. The weight of disappointing my parents hung heavily over me. I dreaded disappointing them. The atmosphere I grew up in was never relaxed, I was unsure when my behaviour would be judged as ‘naughty’, but I grew up knowing I was regarded as a ‘naughty child’, a disappointment.

My father was verbally very articulate and could be very cruel. I learned early on that it was impossible to win any arguments with him. He laid down the law every day at the dinner table and his word was always the last word. I grew up with a dread of conflict and found it difficult to be assertive or to defend myself if treated badly. I had a recurring dream as a teenager of being attacked and not being able to defend myself, in my dream I would stand rooted to the spot, unable to respond. Other dreams that continue to this day involve me being unable to speak. I am in situations where it is vital that I explain something, but the words won’t come out, they are trapped in my throat. Sometimes I can whisper, but so quietly that no-one can hear me. I wake from those dreams feeling scared and powerless.

As long as I can remember my response to conflict is to metaphorically take myself to my room, to run away from it and hope things ‘blow over’. I am frequently convinced I have really upset people when in fact I haven’t. I am super-sensitive to nuances of feeling in others and try hard to please. To protect myself I avoid disagreement and acquiesce too easily. I now believe this has limited my life. Feelings of anxiety regarding confrontation is a strong theme of my life that often cripples me, sometimes quite literally as I can’t even get out of bed. Fortunately such intense reactions have lessened over the years but still have the power to affect me.

When I was 12, I started keeping a diary in which I made lists of the kind of parent I would be. I remember writing that I would listen to my children; I wouldn’t make them feel anxious, guilty or unhappy. I wouldn’t punish them. I remember promising my unborn children that I would respect their views and listen to them. As I child I always felt that anything I had to say would either not be listened to or would be dismissed because I was ‘just a child’. I had to bend to my father’s will or reap the consequences.

My parents, in particular my father, used what I now see as a Childist discourse centred around giving commands. He was authoritarian and required obedience, his was a punitive style of parenting that relied on punishment and fear to control me. I wanted to please him and tried to be good, but somehow always seemed to be judged as bad. This style of parenting impacted negatively on me, but was certainly not unusual at the time. My father never hit me; he had been subjected to physical chastisement as a child and as a result, had decided never to hit us. However, he had not abandoned the belief that children needed a punitive approach if they were to be properly socialized and an authoritarian style of verbal interaction and consequential punishment was deliberately adopted. His model of childhood was that of the unruly child who had to be taught to behave appropriately, which for him meant total compliance. I’m sure he regarded himself as a good parent, particularly in contrast to his own father who was a drunken tyrant. I remember him telling me I would thank him one day for instilling good behaviour into me.

My father regarded me as a possession that he had the right to mold as he saw fit. Unlike his father he did think I had the right not to be physically chastised, but still asserted his right to punish me in other ways. As an adult myself, a parent of grown up children and grandmother I firmly reject the right of adults to behave towards children as if they are possessions, to ignore them, neglect them, silence or punish them just because they are not adults and can’t hit back. I never had close relationships with either of my parents and that was a definite barrier to my happiness. My voice was always silenced.

What have I learned from this reflection?
I don’t believe that coercion and intimidation is helpful to a child, they cause anxiety and fear which has a huge effect on how you grow up. Such an approach to a child is a barrier to happiness. When your voice is silenced, when there is no chance for dialogue or negotiation, only rules to follow and punishment for non-compliance then you are devalued as a human being. I realise I was shaped by the normative expectations of my father and of the times and I want to challenge those norms, to change the social imagination so that children are accepted as full human beings deserving of the respect and care adults take as a right.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Childism at the Tate

I sat waiting downstairs in the Tate Gallery whilst my friend deposited our coats in the cloakroom. A teacher was supervising a group of about 18 children between 8-9 years old. The children were standing in line wearing a uniform that identified them as private school children: green tartan pleated skirts and green Blazers. As I watched the teacher directed half of the children to move in single file up the escalator and I overheard the following, which was delivered in a loud, cross and authoritative voice with accompanying hand gesticulation.

Teacher to the first group who were already on the escalator:

What did I say?
Already you're not listening
WAIT at the top of the stairs

Turning to the second group

Next group (loud voice)
(Pointing) Go, GO!

I wrote what she said down so I could think about it. As a researcher interested in discourse I see this extract of dialogue between a teacher and her pupils as indicative of wider social and cultural processes at play. Power is being exercised here. The words and the authoritative tone of voice reveal the power relations between the teacher and the children. There is an asymmetrical distribution of the right to talk and to direct behaviour.

In the context of a public space, her voice has an audience apart from the children. The teacher is performing authority for other adults in the Tate gallery who might witness the event. It says, ‘I am a good teacher. I can manage the behaviour of these children’. The space is important to the children as well; they are expected to perform the role of ‘good pupil’ through listening to and following the teacher’s instructions.

The words of the teacher indicate expectation of compliance and obedience, but I also detect fear that they won't comply and cause public humiliation. Her words have to be seen in this context, she is not just directing the children and ensuring they are safe, she is also producing social relationships and social identities.

This interaction between a teacher and her pupils is a situation I am very familiar with. Her talk was 'teacher talk' and monologic in that her charges were not expected to respond verbally, but only to indicate by their movements their compliance. Teacher talk is a particular way of using language designed to position children as pupils. By calling it 'teacher-talk' I see it as an example of the kind of discursive practice that goes on in schools, a practice that most people who have been pupils in the UK (and almost certainly elsewhere) would recognise. It is an example of a strategic use of language to get the children to behave in certain kinds of ways. It is also ideological as it seeks to maintain accepted social structures and relations between teacher and pupils.

This kind of talk disturbs me. I see this discursive exercise of power as an example of childism. The teacher is exercising structural power that comes from the way society is organized. She possesses power in virtue of her place in a wider network of institutional power held by schools. And with this power comes an expectation that she will use it to effect social control of the children in her care. So the structural power of educational institutions controls the actions of teachers and the teacher in turn exercises power over the child.

When the teacher asks the question, ‘What did I say?’ we know it is rhetorical. No one is expected to answer, it is an assertion of her right to be listened to and obeyed. When she says, ‘Already you're not listening’ she implies her right to be listened to. She would be unlikely to say this to a group of adults. It is the teacher who has the right to be listened to and to be treated with respect because she is a teacher. I suspect that few adults overhearing this discursive event would find any problem with it. Our society’s conception of children’s social identity as subordinate to adults is so widespread as to be almost invisible; it is part of the social imagination. Unless we can change the social imagination with regard to adult and child an event such as this one passes as unremarkable or may even attract praise for its success in controlling and managing the children ­– here is a ‘good teacher’ in action.

A key instrument to change the social imagination is legislation. We know that changes in attitudes are possible, consider how attitudes towards women, people of colour, homosexuality, disability and many other things have changed in the last few decades. It is clear that legislation to outlaw discrimination has been a necessary lever to change the lives of many men and women, but it is not sufficient. The instrument of change we have with regard to children is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). The UNCRC is expected to be a catalyst for changes in the organisation and culture of schools that is expected to lead to social and cultural change in the relationship between adult and child. Over time we might expect to see profound differences in the social relations and professional identities of teachers and adults working with children. New discourse practices that reflect respect for the child and values its voice should become evident and the authoritarian and punitive disposition of our teacher in the Tate should disappear.

Such change will not happen unless we promote awareness of how current teacher/pupil discourse is a barrier to promoting children's rights. We need to raise critical awareness among teachers of how their current discourse practices impact on children's rights and seek to change them. Legislation alone is not enough.

This leads me to wonder, if we could change discourse practices between adults and children would it contribute to a change in their social relationship? Could such a change impact on adults’ beliefs and understanding of children and vice versa that could lead to a change in the wider social imagination of what is child?

What about the teacher in the Tate? I doubt she would see the relationship between discursive, social and cultural change that I have read into her words. My analysis seeks to uncover the function of her words and show its dissonance as we consider it in the context of the UNCRC. Is the teacher even aware of the changes in her discourse that is required if we are to take children's rights seriously?

The teacher is enacting a discourse that is part of the wider society’s processes of producing social life, social relationships and social identities. If this is to change, we need to pay greater attention to how we speak to each other and seek to find, rights-respecting ways of managing the relationships between adults and children.