This is just a brief Note that includes an extended extract from an article that I just read in The UK Guardian. The article was published in the wake of the recent disappearance, in Britain, of 5 year-old April Jones. Up until the time of writing April’s body had not been recovered, though a man has already been charged with her murder. The article resonated with me not only for the fact it relates to such a tragic story, nor simply because I am just a few months away from becoming a father myself, but particularly for the way the author, David Wilson (a professor of criminology), talked about “childhood”. He referred to childhood’s intrinsic value – where children play for playing’s sake – but also to its instrumental value in terms of child protection. David’s comments made me think about how, for so many Chinese children, this childhood space is restricted by heavy workloads and constant pressure.
David talks about how parental and societal pressures, like those so common here in China, inhibit young people’s ability “to determine for themselves how they would like that [childhood] space to be filled’. This prevents an environment from developing where children feel free enough and confident enough to be able to voice their views and concerns- which is instrumental in terms of children’s protection (not to mention the process of development into adulthood).
With this in mind, it is quite disconcerting to contemplate the number of times I have heard young people here in China refer to how their hobbies, their school and university subjects, their actual choice of university and their jobs have been chosen by their parents. As well as the frequency with which I have listened to more explicit, first-hand accounts of people’s childhoods being affected by physical and emotional abuse. The lack of space for self-determination in China and the effect this can have on a person’s ability to develop a sense of self-worth, and the confidence to speak out about their cares and concerns, is – given its relevance to child protection, let alone the process of simply growing-up – concerning.
During my time in China, I have been fortunate to have spent a good amount of time around young Chinese kids. And I can safely say that they are a joy to be around, exuding such a wonderful spirit of innocence and fun- even when faced with so much work and pressure. But, it is sadly true that we do not always see in the classroom and playground what is under the surface, especially as these children get older. This is particularly worrying in China when early warning signs, if visible, are quite often not picked up on.
It may of course be the case, though, that Chinese kids are just a resilient, joyful, all-knowing bunch, without a care in the world. It may also be true that parents here in China, and elsewhere, actually do always know best: that young people do need to have their lives decided for them, and that it is probably good for all concerned if children are simply seen and not heard. It does seem more likely, however, that as I step out onto the path of parenthood for the first time this Note will act as a reminder of how important it is to let a child’s voice soar.
For now, my thoughts go to April’s parents.
‘Shortly after April’s disappearance, people were asserting – particularly on social media – that April must have been abducted by a stranger, or a “foreigner”, because it was believed that nobody in the close-knit community in which she lived would have taken the child.
… But we know for a fact that in nearly all cases a murder victim and the perpetrator are either related, or known to each other. Indeed, that’s why our clear-up rate for murder is so high – consistently around 90%: because, frankly, you don’t need to look too far for the likely culprit. Most murders are “self-solvers”.
That reality is also true for child victims of murder – most children are at risk from their parents, carers, step-parents or someone known to the family of the child.
… And if a man is hitting his female partner, it is probable that he will be physically, emotionally or sexually abusing his children too. So by insisting that the authorities take domestic violence seriously, we are protecting not only women, but children too.
We could also help further by starting to listen to what children say. This seems like a trite point to make, but all too often we tend to ignore what children describe about their lives, and indeed until recently actively preferred them to be “seen and not heard”. However, listening to children will let us into their world where they have hopes, aspirations and, sometimes, fears about who it is that might actually be harming them.
Above all, we could stop treating children as possessions of the adult world – mini-me, designer accessories and appendages – that merely become used as symbols of the adult’s wealth, status, or culture, and instead begin to recognise children as individual, sentient beings in their own right and therefore valued for themselves.
… Hope for April has all but gone; still, the outpouring of public feeling that followed her abduction proves there is a huge communal desire to keep our children safe. Though we cannot save every child, we can take steps to save a great many – not through waking some “sleeping conscience”, but by recreating the space that we once called “childhood” and letting children determine for themselves how they would like that space to be filled.’
The full article can be found here.
I also just came across this excellent essay (pdf) entitled: Let The Children Play – Nature’s Answer To Early Learning from The Canadian Council on Learning