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There is a feisty new kid on the block in universities throughout the world. He/she is called ‘Childhood Studies’. Departments of childhood studies have proliferated from their beginnings in the 1990s. Numbers engaged in research and teaching in the discipline and their output is among the fastest growing in the academy.

“Hold on”, you say, “Haven’t children been the subject of study since well before the 1990s?” True. The history of science, philosophy, human rights and most fields of human inquiry includes consideration, sometimes in much detail, of children.

In 1900 the Swedish writer, Ellen Key declared the new century to be the Century of the Child. During the twentieth century the study of psychology gained dominance and spread into many areas of life from therapy to industrial relations to marketing and politics. Developmental psychology became the dominant means of understanding children. Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s were perhaps the most famous names in the field. Their studies informed the work of teachers, early childhood specialists, paediatricians child psychiatrists and parents. Child development became and remains a standard in teaching in these occupations.

In the later 20th century many people with an academic and professional interest in children and childhood became unhappy with the standard narratives. There was much to be gained from a study of child development in both enjoyment and usefulness as I found personally but there were certain problems with the framework. It tended to objectify children, it denied their diversity and it offered little scope for development of thinking beyond the formulaic child, idealised as individual, as a social presence (e.g. Bronfenbrenner) and as an aspiration (e.g. Maslow).

Enter the sociologists, the anthropologists and the human rights people. What they said in what came to be known as the new sociology of childhood was that to understand children we must take into account their individual attributes, circumstances and wishes. In short, treat them as people not categories. Further, it was not sufficient to understand them, we had an obligation, since they were not in a position to do so themselves, to try to create circumstances that enabled their best enjoyment of and chances in life. Entraining them in the ways of the adult society they found themselves in had to be tempered by allowing them the freedom to take on the world in their own terms as far as they could and be enabled to influence it in ways not prescribed by adults.  

There were many pragmatic as well as theoretical reasons for this approach. In the fields of family law, health, child protection and public policy-making, decisions were being made as to what was in a child’s best interests. These decisions had little theoretical framework to fall back on although a reference standard was the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. For these reasons the social scientists and rights people were joined by theoreticians and practitioners in family law, public health and public policy. Other disciplines making a contribution to this new field are geography, education (of course), early childhood studies, philosophy, art, literature[1], social work and so on.

The product of all this ferment, Childhood Studies, is multidisciplinary and has an activist orientation. Its hallmarks are recognition of children’s agency, their diversity and the diverse cultures of childhood. Among its founders are Alison James, Jens Qvortrup, Berry Mayall, Alan Prout, Peter Moss, Gary Melton and Priscilla Alderson.

It has been interesting to see where within universities childhood studies units have arisen. They are to be found in faculties of education, law, health sciences, public policy and social sciences. Although the cross-disciplinary exchange and tension has been productive of ideas and research some academics wish for a more pure theoretical framework. I believe it is coming and may have already arrived and awaits precise and bold formulation.

Within New Zealand the earliest and foremost childhood studies unit was established in the University of Otago as the Children’s Issues Centre. Professor Anne Smith was its head up until her retirement from the position and is a pioneer in the field in New Zealand and internationally.

Last Friday has seen the staging of the First New Zealand Childhood Studies Colloquium in Auckland. It was convened by Marek Tesar of the Faculty of Education, University of Auckland and Christina Ergler of the Department of Geography, University of Otago.  

Thirty-three papers were presented from a wide range of disciplines. New Zealand universities represented were Auckland, Otago, AUT, Massey, Victoria, Canterbury and Waikato. Other contributors came from agencies and as independent persons from around New Zealand. Although the contributions came from diverse standpoints it was, to me, remarkable how consistent their conclusions were in relation to the path toward children’s wellbeing. Not prescriptive, I hasten to add, but indicative.

Children do have the right to be heard which means the hearers, as far as they are able, must rely on processes that do not intimidate and silence the child. Such processes are available and when they are successful we are often surprised as adults at how cogent children’s views are. Children’s views and interests must also be represented in our policy- and decision-making institutions, including government. Without such representation democracy is not satisfied and in particular our lobby-driven democracy leaves children behind in the competition for resources and attention.

These practical matters interest me but I also find the research and thinking that presents us with new visions of childhood fascinating.


[1] If you doubt this read Ian McEwen’s latest novel, The Children Act, and for that matter some of his other work such as The Child in Time.

Childhood studies

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