The concept of childhood

 

Churquiales is a poverty stricken area, with limited opportunities for paid work, and so families are self sufficient, with their ‘workers’ being the children (Punch 2001: 25, 26). This could explain why there are larger families here, with ‘approximately four children… per household’ (Punch 2001; 25): families could purposely choose to have larger amounts of children to spread out the dependence. However, this could be a vicious idea (if it is one; birth control methods have not fully infiltrated into the Majority World yet), as it just means families have more mouths to feed.

Because of the larger number of children in families, it is often seen that children in Majority World countries are deprived, and are taken advantage of for labour. However, children often take pride in their work, and do tasks without being prompted by adults to do so (Punch 2001: 27). They are viewed as valuable entities in this culture, often being described as competent workers and dependable enough to take on much responsibility from a young age (Punch 2003: Stirling University).

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An aspect of this responsibility is looking after siblings, an element experienced both in Bolivia and Britain, with children somewhat expected to care for their siblings, disabled parents or ill relatives. As Aldridge and Becker observe, when family members are ill or disabled, children take on the role of the carer; a responsibility which otherwise would have to be shouldered by the state in Britain (1993). This also extends to British children babysitting their siblings when their parents are out or at work.

As Leonard notes, records of school absenteeism suggest that it is not uncommon for children to stay at home to care for a sick member of the family in the UK (Leonard 1990: 67). Children in Bolivia are also frequently expected to look after their siblings whenever their parents are out the household, or simply as part of their routine tasks (Punch 2003: Stirling University). This suggests then that relationships of interdependence do exist in Britain as well as in Bolivia, especially with respect to caring for younger siblings.

It could also be said that parents are not the sole carers of children; older children play a major role in raising and looking after younger siblings. This is interesting in the respect that childhood (in Britain at least) is seen as a time of incompetence (Morrow 1994: 132, 137), but they must be competent enough to hold some responsibility of caring for young children or indeed adults and older people. Across the two societies, children do attend school.

However, in Churquiales, ‘schooling is only available for the first six years of primary education’ (Punch 2001: 26). This contrasts with compulsory schooling in Britain lasting until at least the age of 16, with an increasing number of young adults choosing to go on to university or college after school (The Guardian website: September 2003). It is important to remember that school is an adult controlled institution, like the family, so children in both Britain and Bolivia are dependent on adults to teach and control them in school.

Children in both Britain and Bolivia do play, as play is a characteristic of most childhoods (Ritchie and Koller 1964; Stone 1982 in Punch 2000: 54), and much of children’s time, in the industrialised West at least, is spent killing time and playing around (Leonard 1990: 68). However, children in both societies experience structural constraints that are lain down by adults. While children in Churquiales ‘experience substantial spatial autonomy’ (Katz 1993 in Punch 2000: 54), their time that can be dedicated to play is limited due to the demands of school and work (Punch 2000: 54, 55).

This contrasts with British children’s almost unlimited availability of leisure time. Nevertheless they too experience constraints that are imposed by adults. Children’s use of space in Britain is limited. Parents in urban ‘dangerous’ areas do not like children to play outside, as they do not think children can look after themselves, and so most playtime is spent inside adult controlled institutions: the school and the household (Punch 2001: 26). Thus, it seems that children in both Britain and in Bolivia do have a culturally constructed dependency on adults.

Children’s perceived vulnerability that is a part of the British childhood is not so much present in the Bolivian childhood; children there have more responsibilities and greater powers of negotiation. I think that the contrasts (and, indeed, similarities) between child labour in Britain and Bolivia illustrate the extent to which dependency and age is interrelated in these societies. While children in Britain are viewed as less capable and less of a person simply because of their social age (Hockey and James 1993), in Bolivia, children are seen as capable workers who have much to contribute to the family.

Across both the Majority and Minority Worlds, children are subject to rules and regulations laid down by adult institutions. Their economic, social and political dependence on adults is culturally constructed. It has not always existed: ‘in medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist’ (Arii?? s 1962: 115). I believe I have demonstrated that dependency in Bolivia and Britain is different, and is therefore socially constructed. In conclusion, I believe that age and dependency are interrelated, but the extent to which they are depends on the social and economic context, and can never be taken at face value.

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