Closing Thoughts

By pursing the five steps set out in the Introduction (Chap. 1) this book hopes to have repositioned the child in relation to moral discourses. Perhaps both the starting point and indeed our finishing point are realisations of the implications of a bi-directional relationship between the agent and the social structure around them. For not only does this allow the researcher to pursue the way in which the individual makes sense of settings, and draws meanings from them through those elements of self, but also the extent to which the individual has the potential to contribute to structure. As such, the nature of ‘opportunities’ really matter because consideration is given to how far those opportunities create the space for children to truly participate.

Children’s participation through meaningful opportunities creates change which has the potential to provide more relevant policy and practice. The framework offered within this book provides a basis on which that change can be considered by exploring how interactional settings come to take on constructed meanings, how the individual responds to them and the extent to which this then reinforms the wider context, with the potential to influence how that setting is experienced. The discussion has focused on a conceptual application of the framework, but it must be noted that the framework can be applied to individual settings in order to extend the analysis in relation to children’s everyday interactions. An example of this is offered in Appendix 2, although extending the application of the framework marks an important next step (McNamee and Frankel forthcoming). Both conceptually and practically, therefore, the framework allows us to see, through the moral filters, the means for furthering our understanding of children’s lives, whether a historical or contemporary investigation, or at a macro or micro level.

This book has shown the extent to which social constructions of childhoods carry a moral dimension, one that can be considered in relation to reason, virtue and social harmony. The results are images which informed and inform the settings in which children find themselves. An image of the child, whether children are seen as co-constructors or not, will always be present in any setting. In the same way, a setting will carry a constructed image of any adults that are present: for example, what it means to be a father within a home, what it means to be a woman in the boardroom - both of which will have an impact on how the individual makes meanings in those social arenas. The question here, however, is the extent to which those settings remain a province in which adults control the wider contextual themes and forces that are allowed to permeate, framing any experiences.10 Indeed, adults maintain control over the structural form of so many of the settings that children find themselves in. Adults position themselves as the membrane through which wider social forces or parameters (see Chap. 3) come to have meaning in shaping images of the child and related practices. For change to happen, children need to share in the role of defining social settings and creating the contextual backdrop - children need to be seen as collaborators in shaping childhoods. An illustration of this was given in Chap. 9 in relation to the South African radio project. It reflected interactional spaces that were initially marked by adults limiting children’s opportunities to collaborate because such practices were adult-defined, based on adult-assumed images of the child. However, as a result of the project and the opportunities it created, adults repo?sitioned children so that they were increasingly recognised as offering a valid contribution (they became part of the membrane) that informed how both the image of the child and the practices towards them took shape in both homes and school.

Throughout writing this book what has become increasingly clear to me is the extent to which any investigation of childhoods must be seen through a lens in which childhoods are negotiated; negotiated by adults and negotiated by children. This has become particularly obvious in relation to the three recurring themes of reason, virtue and social harmony, and their treatment in Chaps. 5, 6 and 7 . This investigation was then followed up in Chaps. 8 and 9 through the themes of personal integrity, children as learners and children as collaborators have offered a means to reflect on the reality of this daily negotiation and its relevance to children’s everyday lives.

To challenge dominant discourses of children and morality, one must first recognise the extent to which a framework for analysis must be focused by an active engagement with children’s personal lives. Here those personal elements, including emotions, offer a means to consider how children are responding to the social world through a consideration of self and others. Within this, there are many layers that can be attached to an investigation of emotions, and how these need to be read with reference to both the ‘context’ of the interactional setting and the range of personal elements that the individual brings to the interaction. Through seeking to position these elements, the child makes meanings in relation to what is seen as acceptable. As a socialising process, it demands adult attention to, first, an acknowledgement of children’s personal lives and, second, an understanding of how they interact with it, recognising that the individual will be drawing on a body of ‘emotional’ experiences in assimilating a sense of social order and making sense of the world around them.

Another key theme in challenging traditional discourses to morality is a consideration of the importance of ‘learning’. This book promotes an approach to learning that is driven more by the individual seeking to make sense of their complex social world than the need for direct adult instruction. It reflects a model in which children are given opportunities to ‘learn to be’ (in contrast to simply being ‘taught to do’). Within this, relationships are important because children perceptively recognise that much of an understanding of the world is related to their ability to manage the social. Relationships, therefore, provide a means for not only building experiences implicitly, but also for developing knowledge explicitly. A relationship with an adult who is perceived as having a good understanding of the individual is, therefore, an important ingredient for children in developing their sense of social awareness. Moral images of the child need to take into account key relationships and, as a result, question their effectiveness as channels through which the child feels they can gather the knowledge about right and wrong that they need to successfully navigate their social world. This was considered with reference to adults in the three key spaces of home, school and the neighbourhood. It raises questions, for example, in relation to school, and the extent to which we continue to rely on it as a site for virtue education via a defined curriculum. Perhaps a more personalised programme of learning is needed, one that accommodates focused opportunities for individuals to work with adults with whom they have a relationship of mutual respect, to develop understandings that reflect how they as an individual draw on their ‘personal elements’ in responding to the interactional settings that they find themselves in. This is just as relevant to the neighbourhood. For in such settings, as we have seen, right and wrong (in its applied form) comes to be seen through a unique prisim of individual factors. It is, therefore, only by engaging with the individual on that basis that virtue education can be truly effective as the individual comes to give meaning to what is ‘right’ through specific reference to their personal life in the context of a particular interactional setting.

In a formal environment, this has implications for our approach within, for example, the legal system. Already a more personalised model is forming part of court procedures. However, as the arguments in this book suggest, these initiatives must continue to be encouraged, in terms of ‘justice’ and the child’s voice carrying the weight that it should. But, perhaps this is most important in facilitating the way in which the individual child is able to relate to the relevance of the legal system. Is it an infrastructure built by adults for adults? This is a question that can be posed in relation to the practices in the range of arenas within which children live their lives. This, of course, is linked to the third theme that makes up the challenge to the dominant images of the child that have impacted moral discourses: alongside agency one must look for children’s participation in setting moral agendas. This is to be considered at a range of levels, from a moral framework that makes sense at home, to a more active awareness that children must be seen to be involved in framing community-wide conceptions of a ‘common good’. That is not to say that children do not inform structure at present. However, because of particular images of the moral child, the extent to which children’s agency is able to reinform the policies and practices through which a community agenda is expressed is at best limited. The fact is that children are informing a moral agenda within the settings where they interact and as a society we need to find ways that allow children’s participation to have an effect on those wider structural forces that inform social life. The continuity of a moral order is not simply the job of passing a baton of virtues from one generation to the next, adult to future adult. Rather, it is about each society finding ways to communicate so that one might learn from the past, but also from the present as adults and children both take their place in these discourses.

Moral images of the child must change. By applying a moral filter to structure we can trace the moral images of the child through history and assess their place in thinking today. This analysis provides a defined foundation on which to mount a challenge. What this book has argued, adding to a developing body of work, is that a recognition of the child as a social agent offers a new way of thinking about children and morality. Within this, we begin to recognise the child’s skills and also the learning processes with which they are engaged as they seek to extend their knowledge in response to different interactional settings. A moral dimension to our understanding of children and society must find a place at the centre of our desire to engage with children’s everyday lives, because only then can we ever hope to make sense of the processes that inform, shape and produce social action.

It is by recognising agency as the contextually mediated capacity of the individual to make meanings that inform their actions, that are relationally situated and morally constituted and which are framed within a range of elements that make up childrens personal lives that one can start to really understand what it means to negotiate childhoods.

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