Explore empirical evidence on children’s views on family life in contemporary Britain

It is not easy to define the family since it is rapidly changing and these changes will shape any views children may have, therefore a child’s’ perception of the family in the present time is likely to be very different from their own parents and grandparents. Since the family makes up the majority of a child’s social network it has been found increasingly important to gain an insight into how children feel towards family life as individuals in their own right.

In the past, studies have often concentrated on the parents’ discipline and how the family operates as a whole, however recent studies have been conducted to focus on children’s perspectives. Studies such as Mayall (2002) Negotiating Childhoods as part of the ESRC 5 – 16 programme and Morrow (1998) Children’s Perspectives on Families from the Joseph Rowntree Foundations have allowed children’s voices to be heard.

It has been identified that older children value quality of relationships in the family; younger children believe a family includes the presence of children and marriages. Most children are aware of the wide range in ‘family practice and structure’. ‘Love, care and mutual respect and support [are] key characteristics of family’ (Morrow 1998). It has been found that Children have an ‘accepting and inclusive view of what counts as family’

Children’s definitions of family (Morrow 1998)

‘Its normally a group of three or more people with a mum and a dad and some children, and who love and care for one another…usually’ (Betty aged 9)

‘A family is a group of people, which all care about each other. They can all cry together, laugh together, argue together and go through all the emotions together. Some live together as well. Families are for helping each other through life.’ (Tara aged 13)

Children have expressed strong feelings about the way in which adults sometimes have the majority of control over the way in which they live their lives. It is important to clarify at this point that it is usually older children that have these feelings. As they grow older they want more freedom and parents are often reluctant to give them this space. However, it has been suggested that ‘parents recognise their child’s right and wish to make her own way, to establish her own space and to construct a social life within the family and beyond’ (Hallden 1991 cited in Mayall 1994:115). Younger children are more likely to hold different views as they are more dependent on family members.

No matter how much children see family as controlling, studies have identified that family is very important to them and their ‘social life revolves around relatives and extended kin’ (Morrow 1998). Emphasis on family importance changes as children start schooling and peer relationships become more central in their lives but children understand the significance of the family network. (Mayall 2000)

Parents often have the difficult task of deciding on a sufficient amount of time children should spend undertaking household chores. Through the Mayall and Morrow studies referenced here it is clear that children had difficulty in understanding how they can be seen as responsible enough to carry out household chores but not responsible enough to play freely outdoors. Adults often underestimate the ‘moral competence’ of children. Previous studies of Mayall (1994) have shown, however, that ‘both children and their mothers promote the view that children play an important part as agents in structuring and restructuring the home as a social institution.’ Children feel they are given mixed messages through the home and at school as to what responsibilities they should undertake.

Whether society has become less safe or whether safety is coming more into focus in society; children are losing out. They cannot explore their environment without adult supervision. Children feel that the time they have to play is not their own time as adults are always in the background controlling it in one way or another. They describe it as ‘Adult agendas rule the day’ (Mayall 2000:1)

In general, depending on culture and religion, children would like to ‘have a say’ in what happens to them but not necessarily make final decisions. There is a common feeling that they should be consulted and be able to give opinions. Young children are becoming more aware of the rights of children and want these put into practice in their homes and at school.

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