by Jane Ribbens McCarthy, Carol-Ann Hooper, Val Gillies, authors of Family troubles?
What do we expect of contemporary childhood in general, and children’s family lives in particular?
This is the question at the heart of our new edited book, Family troubles? Exploring changes and challenges in the family lives of children and young people. While modern childhoods are undoubtedly complex and multi-faceted, and some regret what they see as the disappearance or erosion of childhood, it also seems undeniable that high hopes are also strong and persistent, not only for improvements to children’s well-being but for an idealised childhood as a special time of innocence and freedom. A ‘proper’ childhood is seen to be underpinned by a secure and loving home life, with full attention paid to children’s developmental and educational needs, along with special events like outings to theme parks and all the presents and trappings of birthdays and Christmas. Put like this, it becomes immediately apparent that this is an ideal that many children around the world may not experience – even in the affluent global North, economic downturns are increasing those materials inequalities between children’s lives that have always been present. So, how helpful is this ideal of childhood, for parents as well as children, and how well does it equip children for life more generally?
Changes and challenges are undoubtedly a feature of all family lives, so when are ‘troubles’ usefully seen to be a ‘normal’ part of the family lives of children and young people, and when are they seen to be significantly troubling and troublesome, and if so, to whom and with what consequences? When do we need to ‘normalise trouble’, and when may it be necessary, on the contrary, to ‘trouble the norm’ and recognise harm in practices still taken for granted in some contexts? And, in questioning the idealisation of childhood, do we risk undermining the important gains that have been made towards improving the position of children generally since the late 20th century, such as through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?
These are some of the really difficult questions that we have been grappling with since we held a Colloquium in London in July 2010 to set a dialogue going, and open up some new conversations on difficult topics. Since then, the UK Government has initiated its policy on Troubled Families, which uses specific criteria to create a clear-cut category of 120,000 identifiable families for intensive interventions . Such categorical boundaries may have their uses, although there may also be dangers. But our aim has worked in the opposite direction, to question such boundaries and develop conversations across different fields of work, and to ask what difference does it make to the cultural resources available to children if we view troubles as to some extent a ‘normal’ (expectable and expected) feature of childhood and family lives. Opening up these sorts of conversations in the book involves crossing boundaries, between mainstream and problem-focused family research, between researchers and practitioners, across a wide range of different sorts of issues.
Looking at things this way can show up complexities, ambiguities and uncomfortable uncertainties that may feel never-ending. But this may also be a realistic view of the messiness of actual family lives for all of us. And recognising this may be important in shaping our expectations of for children’s lives. What does a ‘proper childhood’ realistically mean, in a globalising and rapidly changing world?
Nevertheless, while it may be productive and important to open up such questions, where does this leave practitioners and policy makers trying to answer such questions in practical terms, answers that may be hotly debated and contested, with important implications for children, young people and parents’ lives? The book also, therefore, grapples with the search for answers to some of these questions, even as it seeks to deal with their complexities.