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Children Within Families

Within families, children are defined as dependents, subject to parental authority. Economic dependence is a crucial, and often neglected, aspect of children's status within families (see Leonard 1990; Hood-Williams 1990; Delphy and Leonard 1992). Children's lifestyles are dependent on their parents' income and their parents' decisions about how that income should be spent. The goods children receive come in the form of gifts or maintenance; they have things bought for them rather than buying them for themselves. Children can exercise choice over these purchases only if their parents allow them to choose. A child may well receive pocket money, or money as gifts, but this too is given at adults' discretion and adults may seek to influence how it is spent. Dependent, adult-mediated consumption is one facet of the power that parents have over children.

It has been argued that parents today have less power and autonomy than in the past because childrearing is now policed and regulated by experts and state agencies (Donzalot 1980; Ehrenreich and English 1978). Nonetheless, parents have a great deal of latitude in rearing their children as they wish, in setting acceptable standards of behavior, and in deciding what their children should eat and wear and how they should be educated and disciplined. Others' interference in these matters is regarded as violation of family privacy and an assault on parents' rights. Because modern families are seen as private institutions, state or public regulation generally only intrudes where parents are deemed to have abused their power or not exercised it effectively enough—where children are abused, neglected, or delinquent. As Barrie Thorne (1987) points out, the situation of children enters the public domain only when they are seen as victims of adults or a threat to adult society. Children also come into public view if their parents separate and contest custody, asserting the primacy of his or her rights over those of the other. Only during the late twentieth century have children been accorded any rights in deciding with which parent they prefer to live.

John Hood-Williams (1990) argues that children's lives within families are regulated in unique ways. Confinement to highly localized, restricted social spaces is part of the everyday parameters of childhood, as is the ordering of children's time by others. Childhood is also remarkable, says Hood-Williams, for the degree of control exercised over the body by others. Children's deportment, posture, movement, and appearance are regulated; they are touched, kissed, and fussed over to a degree unparalleled in any other social relationship. Children are also the people most likely to be subject to corporal punishment; many U.S. and U.K. parents hit their children on occasion (Gelles 1979; Newsom and Newsom 1965, 1968).

Styles of childrearing, however, have become undoubtedly less authoritarian than they were in the late nineteenth century. Increased concern about children's special needs has resulted in more emphasis on the quality of childcare, and each new model of child development has involved changes in standards of ideal parenting, especially mothering (see Hardyment 1983). Families are often described as child-centered. Certainly children's needs are given a high priority, but these are defined for them by adults, tied in part to the responsibility placed on parents to raise children who will conform to wider social norms. It is widely recognized that socialization, or the social construction of subjectivity, of identities, desires, and aptitudes begins with early experience of family life.

An important aspect of this process is the reproduction of family members, of each new generation of adults who will marry and have children. Although family structures are changing, the majority of the Western population still fulfills these expectations. To take up positions as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, individuals are required to be identifiably masculine or feminine and to be predominantly heterosexual. Despite opposition from feminist, lesbian, and gay activists, the family remains a heterosexual institution founded on hierarchies of age and gender (see Delphy and Leonard 1992).

This raises questions about how childhood experiences influence sexual and romantic desires and expectations of marriage and family life. Much of what children learn derives from their experience of family life and the sense they make of it. This is evident, for example, in the way young children play house, recreating the patterns of relationships they see around them. The single most important factor in the shaping of future sexual and familial identities and experiences is gender. To enter into any social relationships whatsoever, children must be defined, and must position themselves, as girls or boys; there is no gender-neutral option. Gender then becomes an organizing principle around which sexual, emotional, and romantic desires are ordered ( Jackson 1982; Davies 1989; Crawford et al. 1992).

Sexual learning in early childhood, for both sexes, is limited by adults' concealment of sexual knowledge from children. Children usually first learn about sexual relations as a reproductive, heterosexual act, but this does not mean that children learn nothing else of sexual significance. They learn, for instance, about bodily attractiveness, deportment, and modesty in a way that is shaped by adult sexual assumptions and impinges particularly on girls ( Jackson 1982; Haug 1987). They become acquainted with codes of romance from such sources as fairy tales (Davies 1989). This is true of both sexes, but again it is girls who are encouraged to take part in feminine romantic rituals and to become more fluent in discourses of love and emotion ( Jackson 1993). Numerous researchers suggest that romantic ideals profoundly affect the way in which young women later come to terms with their sexuality (Lees 1993; Thompson 1989; Thomson and Scott 1991). Boys, on the whole, become less emotionally fluent, find intimacy problematic, and make sense of sexuality through a language of masculine bravado (Seidler 1989; Wood 1984). This may help set the pattern, so often observed in studies of marriage, where women seek forms of emotional closeness that men are unable to provide (Cancian 1989).

Nancy Chodorow (1978) argues, from a psychoanalytic perspective, that this pattern of heterosexual incompatibility is reproduced because women care for children. Girls grow up in a close identificatory relationship with their mothers and so develop the desire to nurture and be nurtured. Boys can establish their masculinity only by distancing themselves from the feminine, becoming more autonomous and less able to establish emotional closeness with others. This process is envisaged as occurring largely at an unconscious level. Other perspectives suggest that children's emotional and sexual desires develop through their active negotiation of gendered positions within the social world (Davies 1989; Haug 1987; Jackson 1993; Crawford et al. 1992). In either case, the experiences of children have an effect on their later lives and on the expectations they bring to adult sexual, marital, and family relationships.


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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodChildhood - Modern Western Conception Of Childhood, Children Within Families