Childhoods worldwide

Our view of children and childhood depends on many factors that change throughout history and in different social and cultural contexts. In the discourse of childhood studies since the 1990s, childhood is spoken of as a construct. This perspective favours a paradigm shift – away from a deficit orientation towards a focus on the strengths and abilities of children. In Latin America, this approach has been described since the 1970s with the term protagonismo infantil (protagonism of children).


What is childhood?

Do you remember your own childhood? Which moments shaped it, which feelings and attitudes do you associate with it? What terms would you use to describe your childhood?

Isn't it difficult to summarise in a few terms a life span whose sole criterion is age? And what would it look like if others did the same? Maybe a good friend. Would he or she describe their own childhood in a similar way? And what about someone on another continent? Would there be overlaps?

Children laugh, cry, play, learn, work, discover, consume, are sheltered, take responsibility, enjoy, become ill, love, experience care, are afraid, become incapacitated, grow, live in poverty, are educated, help others, adapt, enjoy leisure time, are suppressed, flee, change, live in abundance, experience violence, quarrel, are competent, prostitute themselves, can kill, have worries, speak, rejoice, are HIV positive, are under pressure to perform, elbow one's way through, die, are creative, have a disability, are restricted, scream... all over the world. The list could be continued at will.

There is no one such thing as childhood. There are countless childhoods that coexist, depending on cultural, familial, religious, biographical and situational contexts, among other things. What "childhood" means for a child or an adult therefore depends on many different factors. Ultimately, the image of the person who defines childhood is also an important factor. Perhaps one could say that there are as many childhoods as there are children: Every child can tell its own story, every adult can tell a story about its childhood.

According to the definition of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, every person under the age of 18 is a child. Accordingly, there are over 2 billion children worldwide. But even here, there are many different ideas about when 'childhood' begins (whether before or at birth) and the age range of childhood. Many "minors" no longer see themselves as children, but as youth.

Our view of childhood, our attitudes towards children's needs and our dealings with children are influenced by many socially determined images of childhood.

Changing images of childhood

How these images changed culturally in the course of European history since the Middle Ages was summarised by the historian Philippe Ariès in 1960 in his book L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime. In the old European society (similar to what we see today in other parts of the world) children were seen as small adults. They took part in many adult activities almost unfiltered. It was not considered necessary to give children their own space for education and protection. The individuality of the child played hardly any role in this pre-bourgeois society of estates. Only with the emergence of the bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 17th century were children perceived more as independent personalities at the beginning of their own biography.

In the Age of Enlightenment, the child was often seen as a 'tabula rasa', being born as an 'unwritten tablet' and scripted differently depending on its social constitution, upbringing and teaching. It was during this period that the first schools and kindergartens were established and an educational 'colonisation' of childhood began. Children were increasingly kept away from adult life and assigned their own, predetermined sanctuary. The bourgeois concept of childhood was accompanied by the view that childhood was a pre-societal natural state. From this it was concluded that children needed to be civilised, disciplined and cultivated. This image of the child as a 'deficit and lacking being' still determines the way children are treated in education and pedagogy in many Western cultures today, even though the influential philosopher and reformist pedagogue Jean-Jacques Rousseau emphasised the intrinsic value and entirety of the child's phase of life from 1762 onwards and spoke out against leading children (but primarily boys) and in favour of letting them 'grow'.

In other parts of the world, too, there are many different interpretations of childhood, ranging from growing up in war zones to growing up in fundamentalist structures. Children are not only the future, they are also the present, have their own past and often reflect the society in which they live.

Childhood as a construct

Our societal view of childhood has been changing for several decades. In today's childhood research, childhood and child development are seen as a social construction. For they are not a reality that applies equally to all people, but are interpreted and negotiated differently from different positions and contexts. Any truth about childhood can be deconstructed from other perspectives, i.e. supplemented, modified, criticised.

A new construction of childhood increasingly focuses on the self-will, self-determination and competences of children. No longer are adult "child experts" questioned in interviews, but children themselves are included in the research. Children are increasingly seen as citizens, with their own rights independent of parents and institutions. Children are no longer regarded as objects of education and research, but as actors who have a decisive influence on their living conditions and interactions with their environment and are quite capable of formulating their needs independently. Contributing to this paradigm shift have been the children's movements (of children) and the children's rights movements (of adults), which have been developing since the 1970s. In addition to these emancipatory developments, also reactionary views of childhood can be observed, for example, in the discussion on juvenile delinquency. Here, children and youths are to learn discipline and obedience in so-called "boot camps" and youth detention centres in order to be reintegrated into society. Their needs, skills and competences are rarely the focus of attention.

Participation rights are (still) rarely implemented

In 1989, after ten years of preparation, the UN adopted a Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was signed by all countries in the world except the USA - more countries than any other UN convention. This is a major step forward for children's rights, because for the first time, this convention enshrines participation rights alongside protection rights and provision rights. The child also stands as an independent personality with its own opinion and rights. In contrast, at the beginning of the 19th century in Germany, for example, a child was still regarded - legally speaking - as the unrestricted property of its father. Nevertheless, there are still major shortcomings in the implementation and orientation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is often still understood in a protectionist sense. Participation rights are neglected. If the Convention is taken seriously, new concepts of child protection based on the comprehensive participation of children and young people are required. In many cases, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is still more the occasion for Sunday speeches than for consistent implementation.

Even though there are positive approaches in legislation in many countries, most children's rights in their lives remain unfulfilled. Poverty and undignified living conditions are still widespread. Especially children in socially disadvantaged situations, children of indigenous groups and migrant or refugee children are still exposed to violence, exploitation and discrimination, and their rights to education and health are neglected.   

Working children are not only often exploited, but also discriminated against and oppressed simply because they work. Particularly when it comes to the topic of childhood and work, today's childhood research raises the question of how children experience their work, how working children come into contact with their living environment, how they shape it and how they actively defend themselves against unworthy and exploitative working conditions.

From object to subject

This is where ProNATs comes in and asks: How can we make the world a more (child-)just place? Does it really benefit children to advocate the abolition of child labour or should we ask how it could be made more dignified? Does work have positive aspects and how could these be promoted? What is "child labour" anyway? And who are actually the working children?

ProNATs represents a view of humanity that moves away from deficit orientation towards a focus on the strengths and abilities of children. The child is given the status of a social subject, in contrast to the object status propagated by many charitable projects. Object-oriented interventions are based on the assumption that 'immature' children need educational instruction in order to (re-)integrate into society. Subject-oriented interventions, on the other hand, ascribe to children the competence to act and to represent their interests themselves (participation). Together, adults and children drive forward an increase in awareness and solidarity in society, ultimately enabling children to help themselves. In Latin American countries, this approach has been described since the end of the 1970s with the term protagonismo infantil (protagonism of children). In the Anglophone discussion it found its equivalent in empowerment. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that both resources and rights play an essential role in children's participation. ProNATs condemns an unjust global distribution of resources, stands up for children's rights (written and unwritten!) and shows solidarity with them.

Updated: 14.12.2020