The under-socialised child?


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Content type
Family Matters article

December 1992


The author writes that when we speak of the rights of the child we must remember that rights are conveyed by a particular society in a particular time. Rights are set in place by the agreement of society based on their current understanding of what is good and of what can be afforded, so when we speak of childhood we are speaking not of individual children so much as of a social status conferred by a given society on a group defined usually by their age and state of dependency upon adults. The author draws on a series of reports from the European Centre based in Vienna, called 'Childhood as a Social Phenomenon', commenting on the different historical and social conditions revealed in the separate country reports which structure the nature of childhood in each country. He comments on reports from Norway, Italy, Scotland, and Israel. Issues highlighted include demographic trends, social change, socialisation of children, respect for the rights of the child, and children's values and responsibilities.


The sociology of childhood, and of the family for that matter, is often conceived in very individualistic psychological terms. It looks more closely at why an individual learns to conform to be part of society and its norms than it does at the social structures which produce a certain approach to the status of childhood or the institution of the family. This is not surprising given the basic Hobbesian question: How is social order possible? Or how is it that people come to accept social control? Hobbes answered the question by asserting that through the State, the authority of Leviathan created by the social contract, humans become capable of guidance by social norms and goals that make possible an enduring society. Marx asked the further question: How, assuming this capability, do complex societies manage to regulate and restrain destructive conflicts between groups? Most of the sociology of' childhood falls into the same trap - pointed out by Dennis Wrong (1961) in his seminal article - of assuming an oversocialised view of humankind and an overintegrated view of society.

When we talk of the socialisation of children we usually mean, first, the internalisation of social norms, and, second, the notion that each individual is motivated by the desire to achieve a positive self- image by winning acceptance or status in the eyes of others. Thus we have a whole range of theory which talks of roles and expectations and the sanctions that are applied if we conform or fail to conform to those expectations. We also have a whole set of theories about the way children learn which relies upon the significance of others to guide and mould the child's behaviour, rewarding and punishing in order to channel the child into socially desirable behaviour. In fact, on the basis of such theories, it is possible to argue that the basic right of any child is to be taught the rules of society, to be shown appropriate forms of behaviour and to be guided to conform with society and accepted by it through internalisation of those roles and expectations.

What is ignored in such a conceptualisation is that, while we all become social animals and can survive only within society, we do not all learn to accept the particular rules and constraints of the society we are born into. Indeed there is constant conflict both with others and within ourselves as we struggle to achieve our own ends, suffer guilt feelings if we fail to live up to the demands of others, and act in ways which violate the interests of other people, Certainly the experience of eastern Europe in the last few decades has shown that conformity is often the result of pure coercion rather than conviction based on the learning and internalisation of social rules.

When thinking about social behaviour, then, we must give closer attention to the nature of a particular culture and national character as backgrounds to behaviour and we must make a distinction between two meanings of the word 'socialisation'. As Dennis Wrong pointed out, socialisation may mean two quite distinct things. 'On the one hand socialisation means the transmission of the culture, the particular culture of the society an individual enters at birth. On the other hand the term is used to mean the process of becoming human, of acquiring uniquely human attributes from interaction with others.' As he points out, everyone is socialised in the latter sense. They learn to be human in interaction with others, but this does not mean that they have been completely moulded by the particular norms and values of their culture, because that process is always varied and imperfect and resisted by the active individual.

My reason for raising such issues is twofold. One is that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child asserts certain basic rights for children which may ignore that basic right of children to acquire the culture by transmission from those with the responsibility, such as parents, teachers and other authorities. In other words, we may be facing the danger of an under-socialised view of the child as opposed to Dennis Wrong's oversocialised view of humankind.

The second reason is the publication of a series of remarkable reports by the European Centre based in Vienna, called Childhood as a Social Phenomenon - a project started in 1987 and coordinated by Jvens Qvortrup.

The European Centre's reports are essentially based upon an assumption that children are a minority group whose rights have been ignored or denied. That view has been challenged by several writers, including Uric Bronfenbrenner (1990) and David Popenoe (1988), on grounds that it over- emphasises individual rights for children at the expense of the responsibility of parents to reach and the responsibility of children to learn. It is my guess that this debate will become increasingly important as we move towards 1994, the International Year of the Family, for the family is the centre of socialisation and is the focus of conflict between childhood and adulthood as social statuses.

The introduction to the European reports argues that although child mortality and improvements in health, economic prosperity and expansion of education, suggest that the position of children has improved, a paradox has arisen. The numbers of and their importance to society suggests that we are well along the way towards 'doing away with childhood', as opposed to an individualistic view which emphasises the socialisation and protection of children in policy terms.

They hold that childhood must be seen historically and culturally as a social construction, as a permanent structure in any society, even if its members are continually being replaced. They do not deny that childhood is a transitional phase between ignorance and dependence towards autonomous adulthood, but they do object to the implication of this transitional and anticipatory view which makes adulthood the most important part of a generational structure, and has the effect of making children seem passive rather than an active and important group in its own right.

They argue that children belong to society, that children's activities are con structive and closely linked with adults ' activities and that they are used instrumentally by adult society, rather than simply being a useless waiting point until children grow up. As with any social institution, childhood and the life conditions of children are determined by the same economic, political and social forces which create the framework of adults' lives.

So it is not sufficient simply to look at how parents socialise children, rather it is important to look at how a particular society at a given point in history structures its money, its political laws and social rules to use children instrumentally for the broader social purposes defined by that age. Clearly this means that the legal system is crucial in defining adult society's view of children. The law defines children in terms of their individual status as 'not-yet-adults'. They are seen as a category regardless of their individual abilities, and this can violate children's rights of autonomous action. They are treated as a class, or in Qvortrup's terms, as a minority group excluded by adults who define the law from full participation in the life of society.

That exclusion is justified on the basis of the necessary protection children need because they are not yet mature, despite the fact that often society functions according to principles which do not take care of children. There could be no better example of this in Australia than the current debate about violence and pornography on television. Attempts to move such programs into later time slots sit within a context of deregulation of consumer oriented television, but also within a wider context which condones and legitimates violence in a variety of ways.

The European reports call for a generational perspective which attempts to look at what is common between children, what might be called 'childhood's basic condition' in a given place and time, rather than the particular dynamics of a child's relationship with his or her significant others.

The lack of valid information about children, they argue, illustrates the adultism of our views of children. For example, family statistics which show declining family size take on a different significance when viewed from the perspective of children. Though there are more one- and two-child families, there is still a high proportion of children who live with three or more siblings. The same is true for Australia (McDonald 1992) with the 'nuclear' family looking very different when represented in this way. Again, though declining birth rates suggest a lower priority for childhood, a growing percentage of women seem to have become mothers during the past century, so from that perspective the desire to enter parenthood has nor diminished as such.

Nonetheless, with greater longevity and reduced childbearing years, more and more years of an adult's life are without children. So 'given these changes one would expect adults increasingly to plan their lives in terms of themselves instead of their children' (Davis and Van den Oever 1981).

Part of this hiding of the reality of childhood is blamed on the familialisation of childhood, the placing of children in the position of dependent family members. This hides the shared and distinctive practices of children across the whole of society or across classes within society. The European Centre's introductory report (Qvortrup 1987) argues char this took place because of the struggles in early capitalism over the labour power of children, where the State won the battle against the parents and finally had children put in schools.

This process coincided with an increase in the sentimental concern for children and the growth of child sciences such as psychology, psychiatry and paediatrics. It was the time of the child-savers, of increasing child benevolence, well motivated but resulting in the demotion of the child to the completely dependent child. Parents, as the controllers of the family, were permitted to keep the role of main provider and protector of their children but the labour power of children was taken away from the family as the State had children put in schools. Qvortrup points to the 'collective amnesia' which means that the work of children in the production of knowledge through schooling is not really seen as work that is valued because its outcomes are so much delayed. But schools became the main agent for normalising children in accordance with the demands of society, often ignoring the growing knowledge about children's needs that was coming from the new sciences. Mass education made possible the development of individualism as a precondition for the social mobility required by the demands of modern society.

Such a perspective offers several new insights about the sociology of childhood. Qvortrup argues that the rights of children as identified in the United Nations Convention, by preserving the principle of the best interests of the child, still assumes that children are to be protected by adult society and against adult society, and denies to some extent the notion of the child as partner, revealing a continuing reluctance to restrict parental rights accordingly. He argues that the economic function of children has changed but has become obscured because the opportunity costs of children are still carried by women and the faintly restricts a proper acceptance of the State's role in any negligence towards children.

Qvortrup argues that children's contribution to society in an economic sense is even greater than we realise because not only do children work at school actively in the production of knowledge that will be used for the good of society once they become adults, they also contribute a good deal of work in the form of part-time after school work as well as through housework. Indeed, he argues that the 'housewife' is being substituted by the 'housechild', since children are left in an empty house for several hours each day to cope for themselves without interference by adults. Their contribution to housework is virtually equal to the contribution made by men and the triple workload of children is more of a problem than the double workload of an employed woman. Yet these contributions of children to society as a whole are not fully recognised because of the delayed product of that investment.

In contrast to the greater autonomy of children in the home, there is a growing professionalisation and institutionalisation of childhood. Children are increasingly placed in formal social settings, such as day care and schools, which leave little room for children's own wishes. This is an interesting departure from the point of view of those who would see the basic role of childhood as one of preparation for adulthood and the training of children as central to the maintenance of society.

The separate country reports prepared for this European study are important because they reveal the different historical and social conditions which structure the nature of childhood as a social phenomenon.

The report on childhood in Norway draws attention to an interpretation of the feminisation of poverty and describes it rather as the 'pauperisation of motherhood', since the most important factor in the poverty of women is whether or not she has children dependent on her. They argue that in Norway the emergence of the housewife family in the 1950s was not only a cultural trend but also one of the basic political aims of the new welfare society. The Norwegian housewife was an administrator of children's activities and the cultural definition of the family and the housewife merged during that period.

Deriving from the rural nature of Norwegian society, children were expected to enjoy a large amount of free time particularly out of doors. The 'fresh air syndrome' reflected the Norwegian child-oriented culture where children spend a lot of time with friends and peers and are supposed to do so. Along with this is the high frequency of leisure activities being run by volunteer organisations. Norwegian children spend most of their afternoons with friends outside school and not in contact with parents, resulting in a higher than average accident rate for Norwegian children compared with those in other Scandinavian countries. Norwegian parents, it is argued, do not exert strong control over the life of their young teenagers and have gradually adopted the negotiation model of upbringing more typical of the modern middle class. Whereas the old model was one of closeness while at the same time keeping a distance between parents and children, time has now become a major factor and the life of children is increasingly organised, adult supervised but still one which gives children a high degree of independence outside the home.

Because of the high level of female employment where even grandmothers are working, a crisis in child care has developed, and particularly in the hours after school children have great control over their own activities. They are in the company of peers and siblings, and the telephone represents an important channel of communication. Children themselves talk of the parents' absence as a benefit because they can choose themselves what to wear and what to cat when they return from school. Adult supervision is time consuming, not only for parents but for children as well, and when children are alone they are free of the need to negotiate with parents and can develop their own rhythm of life.

Despite the reduction in big families, Norwegians still have siblings and the claim is made that the increase in divorces and the break up of family life may have strengthened the bonds between siblings. School children play an important part in the child care system with those aged 10 to 12 acting as caretakers for the youngest children in the family, spending on average 1.8 hours per week in child care. Siblings of school age spend more time together than with their parents and thus become very significant others to each other. Norwegian children play an important role in the management of the household as well, spending on average 5.5 hours per week doing different kinds of housework, and 1.6 hours running various kinds of errands. The children's contribution to housework is exactly the same as the men's. Moreover, it is less sex-segregated than for adults, with boys spending as much time in food preparation and other chores as girls do.

This no doubt has profound implications for the nature of Norwegian society in future years as this generation of children move on into adulthood. Because children manage on their own with less supervision than when the housewife/mother was present, children are not little helpers but rather have their own political position within the family. Norwegian children even spend an average of 2.4 hours per week in caring for other children or in visiting elderly or sick people. One-fifth actually help with their parents' work thus contributing to the income earning capacity of the family.

The authors of the Norwegian report (Frones, Jensen and Solberg 1990) say that in many respects the position of the house~ wife has been replaced by that of the housechild, who takes possession of the house for a large part of the day and contributes importantly to its functioning, but the post-war family is also becoming increasingly organised with the institutionalisation of childhood activities outside the home. Mothers no longer create a social framework in which children can move, and public institutions seem to be taking over much of this role. Because of the change in the nature of family and neighbourhood life, children's pathways become more privatised and the home is transformed into an unsupervised playground.

Such insights suggest that we should be looking at childhood in its own right, looking at the activities of children in terms of their contribution to both family life and to the society through their active role in creating knowledge, and not regarding children merely as passive recipients of adult socialisation.

The national report on Italy also provides some surprises. For example, it shows that the Italian birth rate is 35 per cent below replacement level - surprising in a culture which appears to value children and in which contraception and abortion are frowned upon. The authors of the report suggest that this reflects a transformation in the economic and sentimental value of children reflecting Philippe Aries' (1962) comments that the days of the 1 child king' are over. 'The under-40 generation is leading us into a new epoch, one in which the child occupies a smaller place to say the least.'

The notion put forward here is that the dependency of children has increased with the rising costs of children. These conflict with the needs of other family members in terms of time and mental energy, creating a difficult moral arithmetic in which the demands exceed the available resources or the supply of time and energy. What matters is that a resolution to the problems of procreation, and socialisation has been left up to two ',of society's weakest members, the woman and the child, and the conflict created by their opposing interests. There has been a failure to find a collective solution to this problem. By 'privatising family choice we prevent it from becoming a problem for society or for social institutions'. It is not that Italians do not love children, indeed Italy is a child-centred country with unprecedented solicitudes and understanding of childhood, but these are nevertheless often combined with several manifestations of indifference, intolerance and hostility towards children.

The basic reason, they say, can be traced to the conflict between public interest and private responsibility. Society has kept the right to evaluate the results of delegating responsibility to the family as well as the right to use in the productive process the knowledge and technical ability accumulated by the child in the course of its primary and secondary socialisation. This reflects Qvortrup's framework which suggested that the decline of the birth rate can be seen as the result of the separation of private costs from collective benefits, the result of the familialisation of childhood. Again this is not because people refuse to procreate, but rather the affirmation of a family model more and more oriented towards the only child or, at most, two children.

The Italian report echoes the point made by Norway that despite reduced fertility only 20 per cent of all minors are living as an only child with most children growing up with at least a brother or sister and 20 per cent of children living in families with three children. It is in the one-parent family that the child's socialisation reaches the highest level with 43 per cent of them being an only child, with drastically limited possibilities for an inter-personal relationship with peers within the family.

The basic change is that the family has been made the principal institution responsible for childbearing and childrearing so society assumes a more passive role in facing the commitments and costs connected to the production of new generations and their absorption into productive life. This is illustrated by statistics on the negligible share of resources provided by the State for the raising of children and the lower share of quality housing and other resources within families compared with adults. It is only in the sphere of education that the State steps in with major resources in order to guarantee the production of a skilled labour force. The report (p. 2 2) states: 'In an industrial society the socialisation of knowledge becomes a fundamental prerequisite for a smoothly functioning economy. Compulsory education is essential to this objective. Through education the private aims of the family and the public needs of production can be realised.'

The report for Scotland is equally interesting, in that national statistics on children are more comprehensive and education has historically a high status. Rising proportions of women in full-time paid work put children more in the position of competing with employers, not the elderly, for their mothers' labour time.

Whereas the State 'routinely invades the privacy of the family' over child health matters, there is in Scotland 'a near-total absence of political will to provide child care from the public purse' (p.45). David Oldman (1991), the author of the report on this country, comments extensively on the capitalisation of Scottish children' and an increasing pressure to turn the public expenditure on education over to private control, whereby parents are increasingly empowered to direct public money into the capitalisation of their own rather than other people's children. Public investment in education, when allied to a high degree of familialisation, actually reinforces that familialisation by allowing parents to pass on whatever advantage they possess to their own children' (p.45). Such a process has implications for equity, social justice and national productivity in Australia too.

David Oldman also reminds us that the very boundaries set by adults ostensibly to protect children, actually allow a subversive culture of childhood to flourish unseen (compare the Cinderella Dressed in Yella folklore of Australian children), and rejects Neil Postman's (1982) concept of the 'disappearance of childhood' because it ignores both the different interpreting, encoding skills of children faced with adult media messages, and the fact that formal teaching is power exercised in the interests of adults as much as in the interests of children. He is also more than a little cynical about those who clamour for children's rights, people who come to 'overidentify with the child', rarely consult children themselves, are overly suspicious of the controlled power of the family yet naively optimistic about the wisdom of the State as parent (Hilary Clinton, a top United States advocate for children's rights has been criticised by Christopher Lasch (1992) on similar lines) and whose emphasis on individual rights 'undermines any discussion of needs... and the importance of the community in the development of the community' (p.48).

In these matters lies much food for thought. Perhaps in our scurry to assert children's rights we are forgetting needs and responsibilities. Are we losing sight of the fact that children need (have a right) to have their culture transmitted to them, that adults (all adults, not just parents) need (have a responsibility) to set limits to free expression and random behaviour?

If we have laws which restrict our freedom to drive too fast, to drink coo much, to violate other people's bodies and property, to smoke in public buildings, why is a consistent set of rules about acceptable child behaviour, respect for other people, give and take, self-constraint rather than total self-assertion, not also desirable for children? This is where the group of writers represented in the book Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family, edited by David Blankenhorn, Steven Bayme and jean Bethke Elshtain (1990) offers much of value.

Uric Bronfenbrenner's (1990) set of derived propositions argues for an emotionally involved but publicly embedded setting for proper child development: 'The effective functioning of childrearing processes in the family and other child settings requires public policies and practices that provide place, time, stability, status, recognition, belief systems, customs, and actions in support of childrearing activities not only on the part of parents, caregivers, teachers and other professional personnel, but also relatives, friends, neighbours, co-workers, communities, and the major economic, social and political institutions of the entire society.' (p. 37)

There is little in the American scene to suggest such an approach to childhood exists, but the whole book calls for a rethink of the structures which affect childhood as a stage of life.

The report on Israel comes closest or the European Centre reports to this 're-socialising' view of children in society. Despite (in fact because of) continued high levels of immigration, Israel's pattern is one of 'massive social intervention in the process of raising children, in educating and socialising them. Moreover, this social intervention is, as a rule, considered both legitimate and acceptable. Families conceive of the variety of forms of intervention, of supervision and of control, over the process of raising children, as a form of help offered them by society' (p. 10).

To illustrate, the Labour Government of the 1950s introduced a comprehensive set of laws for the working mother. They aim to enable women both to fulfil the traditional role of a mother and to be part of the workforce. Generous parental leave provisions ensure time for breastfeeding and care in infancy, with a focus (often criticised) on the role of the mother. Over 80 per cent employ home help in preference to formal child care centres, and the 'neighbourhood baby sitter' is common, again keeping children structurally within their home community. Living away from home is more common, in residential schools, for 13-17 year olds, but there is a wide belief that 1 even a bad family is better than a good institution'. Many children's activities are initiated and controlled by adults; other areas of social life are closed to them by adults in authority.

The writer, Lea Shamgar-Handelman (1991), challenges many Western concepts of childhood as the period of innocence, lack of responsibility, freedom to experiment. Instead she says, the main role assigned to a child is to be a student, a norm accepted by parents where performance colours the child's position and family relationships. As a result, Israeli children are highly organised, sitting between the benign notion that 1 everybody in Israel educates everybody' and complaints about 'the regimentation of children'. The notion of an 'unattached youth' is a derogatory one and everyone is expected to have their useful place in society. Education is both the key to social control of children and competitive access to the best resources and job futures. Even kindergartens have clear goals and set educational programs, riot merely a well equipped kind of baby-sitting. As always, class and ethnic factors make a difference to children's life chances.

0ne has to conclude that national States structure childhood in accord with their cultural goals and needs. However, some manage to spell out their underlying goals and assumptions better than others, and the place of childhood loses the transparency so evident from the gaps in child-focused information. We might well be suspicious about this 'transparency' or 'invisibility' because it hides whose interests are structuring the experience and outcomes of childhood.

Calls for 'freedom', 'respect for the rights of the child', 'the best interests of the child', within an adult- centric model of human behaviour may serve to make children victims of adult agendas not set by their parents, not tailored to children's own needs, not serving the nation but hidden interest groups within it, and failing to teach children that their rights rest upon a structure of responsibilities for and mutual interdependencies between self and others.

My own reading of childhood development and 'successful' socialisation leads me to prefer a bit more 'socialisation' and a little less freedom to do your own thing. 'Some clear statements about the values all children need to learn and the responsibilities they must learn to carry as citizens, might suggest changes to our current social structures which make so many children victims, incompetents, fuses, in fact, for future social disintegration.


  • Aries, P. (1962), Centuries of Childhood. A Social History of Family Life, Vintage Books, New York.
  • Blankenhorn, D.Bayme, S. and Elshtain, J.B. (eds) (1990), Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family, Family Service America, Milwaukee, W1.
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. (1990), 'Discovering what families do', in Blankenhorn, Bayme and Elshtain (eds), Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family, Family Service America, Mil~ waukee, W1, pp.27-38.
  • Davis, K, and Van den Oever, P. (1981), 'Age relations and public policy in advanced industrial societies', Population and Development Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, March, pp. 1 - 18.
  • Frones L, Jensen, A. and Solberg, A. (1990), Childhood as a Social Phenomenon: National Report. Norway, European Centre, Vienna.
  • Lasch, C. (1992), 'Hilary Clinton, child saver: what she values will not help the family', Harpers Magazine, October, pp.74-82.
  • McDonald P. (1992), 'Extended family in Australia: the family beyond the household', Faintly Matters, No-32, August, pp.4-9.
  • Oldman, D. (199 1), Childhood as a Social Phenomenon ,National Report, Scotland, European Centre, Vienna.
  • Popenne, D. (1988), Disturbing the Nest. Fancily C Change and Decline in Modern Societies, Aldine de Gruyter, New York.
  • Postman, N. (1982), The Disappearance of Childhood, Delacourt Press, New York.
  • Qvortrup, J. (1987), Childhood as a Social Phenomenon: Introduction to a Series of National Reports, European Centre, Vienna.
  • Shamgar-Handelman, L. (199 1), Childhood as a Social Phenomenon: National Report, Israel, European Centre, Vienna.
  • Wrong, D. (1961), 'The oversocialized conception of man', American Sociological Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, April, pp. 183-193.