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Child of the confused century - Caroline Brock

The Child of the New Century Study, directed by Professor Heather Joshi for the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, currently following the lives of 19 000 children born in the UK in 2000/2001, discovered, from the first stage findings, that the most common form of childcare for employed mothers were grandparents (45%) followed by partners (31%). So what does this mean for young children growing up today?

The research in this hugely important longitudinal study following the progress of these children and their families, discovered that around 1 in 3 children aged 5 with a working mother was looked after by their grandparents in a typical week (compared with 1 in 7 with a non-working mother). Maybe working mothers are doing their children a favour and reviving the extended family. Added to this is the involvement of other sources of childcare. So what benefits might this bring young children growing up in today’s society?

Popular culture

There has been much concern in recent years over the influences of popular culture on young children especially girls. Students of AQA Sociology studying the Culture and Identity unit will be very familiar with this term, which by definition is used by large numbers of the population, and surely covers a wide age range. Many children as young as eight years old are texting friends, and using facebook as a means of communication (despite the fact that only over 13’s are eligible to join up), using language normally associated with teenagers. They are also listening to music with lyrics that are giving them an early sex education long before the primary schools have begun to.


In discussing young girls dressing provocatively, Ariel Levy in her book ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs: women and the rise of raunch culture’, argues that “Adolescents are not inventing this culture of exhibitionism (and conformity) with their own fledgling creative powers. Teens are reflecting back our slobbering culture in miniature”. It is clear where she sees the blame lying when she argues that that they have no knowledge of any other culture as adult females do.


Many young school children are met at the school gates at the end of the day by a grandparent in whose care they will be until early evening when their parents finish work. The homes of these 60-something year olds will, arguably, be free of most of the influences of this ‘slobbering culture’. So does all this lead to a balanced or confused child?


Redefining the stages

When a child who has just turned nine claims that this is her last year of childhood because when she is ten she will be a ‘pre-teenager’, what is perhaps the most worrying is their awareness of what comes next and the need to get there as soon as possible.


Neil Postman (1983) in ‘The disappearance of childhood’ argues that children are no longer separated from the adult world especially due to television and therefore childhood no longer exists. Television programmes that appeal to adults and children alike are becoming more and more commonplace. If, as Nick Lee (2001) argues, adulthood is no longer complete and stable then maybe children have something to teach the adults, in fact, many children’s programmes suggest they do just that even helping them give up smoking.










A two-way process of socialisation

Primary socialisation (the first stages of the process by which we learn the culture of our society) is an early concept for students new to Sociology. This process is viewed as one-directional by structural sociologists but there is increasingly evidence of a two-way process especially when it comes to new forms of communication and teaching the morals of avoiding alcohol and cigarettes. However, either way, it is viewed in today’s society as a process between parent and child rather than skipping a generation and involving grandparents.


Children are being given a new improved status in our society where their voices are listened to. Since the 1989 Children Act they have a say in decisions about who they will live with in divorce cases. In many schools and colleges their views are increasingly valued including their judgements about their teacher’s (-and even prospective teacher’s in an interview situation-) ability and pedagogical skills. This is even occurring with children as young as age 5.The voice of the child is increasingly being heard and the power balance in the parent-child relationship is shifting.










Diverse socialisation

Of course not all children will experience the same process of socialisation. Any student of Sociology will be aware of the many forms of stratification that there are in British society that will impact upon the socialisation process. Add to this cross cultural differences and there is vast diversity.

Furthermore, there is the fact that some children will experience socialisation in a two parent household and others in a single parent household. Around 1 in 5 of the children aged 5 in the Child of the New Century study lived in lone mother families. Research has also shown that they tend to have regular contact with the biological father. The two-parent household can also take many forms and may involve re-constituted families and contact with a non-resident parent. Many sources for primary socialisation then, so whose has the ultimate responsibility and what if these sources give conflicting views? It is only current research that can highlight these important trends for us to consider.











Longitudinal methodology

The benefits of longitudinal research are clear, by keeping the same sample we can be sure that any changes in attitudes and behaviour are not simply due to changes in the makeup of the sample. However sample attrition (people dropping out of the research) is a key problem and the Centre for Longitudinal Studies is very cautious to keep in regular contact with the parents in between the various stages of the research.

To date the surveys at age 9 months, 3 years, 5 years and 7 years have been completed. The next stage will be the age 11 research in approximately 2012. It will be interesting to see whether this reveals the influences of popular culture and ‘pre-teenage’ behaviour alongside where the various sources of responsibility for childcare lie.



The findings of this study enable an analysis of the impact of a wide range of policies on child health, parenting, childcare and social exclusion. Any focus on policy has at it’s heart the future social and economic well-being of our nation so polices need to adapt to the way in which we bring up children today. The study has found that whereas working mothers were twice as likely as non-working mothers to feel that they did not spend enough time with their children, working fathers were more than three times as likely as non-working fathers to feel this way. The policy makers need to adhere to solutions to this and with current changes to paternity leave this looks optimistic.


Children are the future so that’s a huge responsibility. “Life affords no greater responsibility, no greater privilege, than the raising of the next generation” (C. Everett Koop)


But who holds that responsibility? Grandparents? Non-resident fathers? Older siblings from previous relationships of the parents? The mass media?


The fact that the study claims that the childcare is FOR (employed) mothers seems to indicate who our society believes has the main responsibility and privilege. However, with such a blend of influences, surely the child of the early 21st century will become the most open-minded, sociable and well-balanced adult?




Shirley Dex and Heather Joshi (eds) (2005) Children of the 21st century; from birth to nine months The policy press


Nick Lee (2001) Childhood and society: Growing up in an age of uncertainty. Buckingham: Open University press


Ariel Levy (2005) Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture


Neil Postman (1983) The disappearance of childhood. London : W.H. Allen





Caroline Brock is a sociology lecturer at Sussex Downs College in Lewes. Caroline has been teaching Sociology for many years and previously taught at the open university

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