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'Childhood' in 'Crisis'

Phil Scraton (editor)
UCL Press: London
1997
1 85728 789 4 (pb)
12.95 (pb)
xvi + 224

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This timely collection of essays raises not just one, but many question marks, about the supposed crisis in British childhood which has been widely held to characterise the end of the twentieth century. Following the murder of little James Bulger in 1993 by two 10 year old children there was a groundswell of political and populist concern about the state of the nation's children and their loss of 'natural' innocence. What had gone wrong? And what could and should be done to care and control our children and to return to the natural order of things? Politicians beat the drum and the moral panic grew.

But, as the contributors to this volume clearly and eloquently show, such questions were neither new nor unique to the 1990s. Rather they arose out of the complex enmeshing of particular social and political concerns about what children are or should be, for it is in the future of its children that the future of the nation is commonly held to lie. Any perceived 'crisis' in childhood becomes, therefore, a highly charged political issue. In this book the ways in which this ideological debate is currently being played out in Britain at the turn of the century are carefully revealed and powerfully critiqued within an overarching framework of children's rights.

Part 1 sets out the historical and theoretical perspectives within which the debate can be situated. An excellent article by Goldson introduces issues around the social construction of childhood, demonstrating, through an historical overview, the cultural shaping of children's " best interests" at any point in time through the dynamic interplay of social, political and economic factors. The constructed character of childhood is then nicely illustrated by Davis and Bourhill in their following discussion of the demonization of childhood by the the press, revealing this to be a very powerful tool in the manufacture of this latest and particular crisis in British childhood.

In Part 2 different dimensions of the 'crisis' are then explored across a variety of domains with each article demonstrating the ways in which childhood is differently represented and children's ' best interests' variously constructed within these spheres. Coppock looks at the ways in which the 'breakdown of family' has been held to account and argues that such a view, one holding great political sway, narrowly focuses on the structure of the family while failing to come to grips with importance of family processes in child socialisation. Corteen and Scraton, address the continued and widespread ambivalence over attitudes towards children's sexuality in relation to a perceived need to preserve childhood innocence and the disempowering effect this has for children themselves. The role of education, youth justice and medicine are then addressed respectively by Haydon, Goldson and Coppock who each ask, in relation to these different arenas, how are children being positioned and what has been the effect on children themselves of increasing the control arm of the care/control relationship exercised by adults on their behalf. The answer, sadly, has been a decrease in children's rights and opportunities for participation as citizens.

In sum, it is a rather depressing picture of childhood which is painted with strong brush strokes throughout the volume. The 'crisis' of childhood is revealed to be more a crisis of adulthood in that the social and political policies of various kinds brought in to preserve or rescue children have singularly failed to address children's own interests during the later 20th century. Rather, as Scraton notes in the conclusion, they are evidence of a considerable backlash against increasing children's rights wielded by adults under the banners of both care and discipline. The collection is a stark portrayal, then, of the difficulties which children, and those working on their behalf, encounter in the context of a culture where children it would seem should ideally not only not be heard but also not be seen unless invited, by adults. As such this book should be recommended reading not only for any social scientist interested in children's issues but also for those policy makers for whom children, it would seem, still represent an issue to be dealt with.

Allison James,
University of Hull

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