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Time to stop fearing and start supporting young people’s peer group empowerment

Phil Frampton, Founding Chair of the Care Leavers Association and author of the new book ‘Youth and the Mystery Wall’, discusses children’s rights in the 21st Century and how a trend of ‘societal objectification’ has seen young people denied agency in a culture which loses sight of them as valuable contributors to society.

15/11/22

Time to stop fearing and start supporting young people’s peer group empowerment

The terrible impact of the pandemic lockdowns on the mental wellbeing of our children and young people is beginning to be recognised. Reports of youth mental health referrals rising by 50% go alongside the mountain of anecdotal evidence of young people during lockdowns suffering from loneliness and trauma.

There is some evidence that young people’s anxiety levels rose over fears for the survival of their close relatives, but few can doubt the immense impact of children and young people being isolated from face-to-face contact with their friends. The clamour of young people aching to return to school and college reflected their desperate need to socialise with their peers.

One of the biggest lessons of the pandemic was that we are nothing without our collective existence. Our communities demonstrated not only their humanity but also an immense collective spirit. Governments directing resources to maintaining young people’s academic education and neglecting protecting children’s mental health proved dangerously misguided and a failure to truly listen to young people’s voices.

I would argue that this critical omission reflects a societal objectification of children whereby they are denied agency with little or no positive value given to their role in society as whole – and in peer development especially. This was reflected in the pandemic where it was seen as enough to isolate young people in their homes to protect the adult members of their families.

It raises the question of whether, in the societal objectification of children, we have lost sight of them as valuable contributors to society. Utah University Professor David Lacy may provide a useful new starting point for child development studies by questioning why we have children. Lacy divides global attitudes to childhood between the cherub childhoods of the West and the predominantly chattel childhoods of the Global South where the majority of the world’s peoples reside.

Lacy argues that the ‘cherub childhood’ model offers parents only emotional reward. In contrast, the ‘chattel childhood’ offers the parents mainly material reward i.e. as soon as the child is able, they are expected to contribute to the material sustenance of the family: working in the household, then in the fields or earning in the labour market. With the parents often out at work, the chattel children play a key role not only in household chores but also in nurturing and developing their siblings (what authors such as Anjan Chakrabarti(i) refer to as child work). One hundred and fifty years ago, chattel childhoods were predominant in the Western world.

In the chattel society, the children might be deemed as adult property but their agency is also recognised as crucial to the family. The cherub childhood, often leaning on interpretations of the philosopher Rousseau, centred on young people being excluded from the labour market and being left to indulge in the “joys of childhood” whilst being academically educated and civilised. This model, easily achievable by Rousseau’s affluent associates, became a middle-class aspiration and then became the model for the wealthiest societies. Notably the children were still considered as property, but now seen as economically unproductive humans i.e. without agency. However, as the likes of Anjan Chakrabarti (ibid) explained, child work still takes place in most Western families with siblings. Society is blinded to this work, as it was with women’s work in the home, because it, like young people’s peer-to-peer agency exists outside of the labour market.

In asserting the crucial role of socio-emotional relationships for child development, Bowlby undoubtedly made a vital contribution to child psychology. However, by focusing on parental/adult attachment as the sole important primary attachment required for child development, he probably unintentionally promoted a model which excluded the importance of sibling attachments and young people’s agency.

Consequently, social science developed as if sibling and peer agency was unimportant. By 2012, Human Development Professor, Susan McHale and her colleagues, could highlight the minute proportion of citations regarding sibling interactions in academic texts:
“Our search of the 1990 – 2011 psychological and sociological abstracts for ‘sibling and relation or relationships,’ for example, yielded 741 citations. In contrast, the counts were 33,990 citations for ‘parent or parenting’, 8,685 citations for ‘marriage or marital relationship or marital relation’, and 5,059 citations for ‘peer relations or peer relationships or friend-ships’.”(ii)

McHale et al conclude:
“Most family research has been conducted with the seeming assumption that studying one child in a family is sufficient for understanding how families operate and how they influence individual development and adjustment. Research on siblings has revealed…that, in failing to incorporate siblings in their investigations, family scholars may be missing important pieces of the family puzzle.” (ibid.)

Indicative has been our care system where siblings in care are still routinely separated. Young people are shifted around placements. More importance is given to their placement in “families” than the building and maintenance of peer relationships, with little contemplation of the benefits, especially for adolescents, of peer networks.

Sadly, the recent government-commissioned 278-page Social Care Review mentions peer-on-peer abuse and violence in care but barely references the importance of young people’s peer networks. Commenting on the benefits of adult Independent Visitor schemes, it carries a one sentence quote from a care-experienced young person regarding the difficulty of maintaining peer networks in care. The report also lists the existence of peer support groups for care leavers at university and mentions maintaining “important sibling relations” when listing the benefits of kinship care. Otherwise the rest of its mentions of peer-to-peer support and networking relates to parents and caregivers. It would seem that the lessons of the pandemic passed the report by.

Studying child development without recognising young people’s agency is akin to trying to understand the processes on Earth from the standpoint that the Earth is flat. Unable to find their way to peer over the edge of the Earth, scientists concluded that beneath the Earth was Hell… which has echoes of the prevailing views regarding adolescent collective agency; a dark place, full of perils for one’s children.

As chronicled in my childhood memoir(iii), I grew up Mixed Race in orphanages of 20+ children of varied ages, gender and ethnicity. We were the flotsam and jetsam of the cherub childhood, and not required to offer emotional reward to adults. Many of those that were considered suitable for chattel childhoods were shipped off to the farms of the UK and its colonies. In the orphanages we were introduced to forced labour, which, though often consisting of barely arduous household chores, contributed to reductions in the institutions’ staffing costs (in this respect very similar to the UK’s boarding schools). Our agency as children was in this sense recognised. Similarly today, the agency of the UK’s wonderful but under-resourced 700,000 young carers is also acknowledged, though almost apologetically.

However, we also voluntarily and without instruction spent a large amount of time developing and nurturing each other through play, protection, education and collective engagement; more-so than any of our carers. This was our unrecognised agency. In our free play we did the work that educationalists, like the late Ken Robinson(iv), often point to as critical for developing emotional intelligence; conflict resolution, imagination, empathy, negotiation skills, compromise and an emancipatory environment requisite for the collective world.

Yet, even if peer relationships are seen as part of the nectar of early child development, Western society acts as if once that child reaches adolescence and a level of physical and mental development that nectar turns to poison. In politics it is sometimes said: “One can’t plan what one doesn’t control and one can’t control what one doesn’t own.” Parents do not own other people’s teenagers and hence can’t control their interactions with their children. With little research of sibling and adolescent peer relationships or their benefits, it is easy for parents and social workers to fear the worst, the dark side. A steam of propaganda issues from the media and governments on the threats that adolescents’ peers pose to parents’ cherub children.

Society has been pushed into accepting that the only safe spaces for adolescents are ones closely shaped and shepherded by adults including the solitary confinement of their bedrooms – and even physical isolation is no longer seen as guaranteeing safety because of access to social media. Nurturing parents have been societally bullied into fearing risk for their adolescents and condoning the atomisation of their children.

In contrast, adolescents require collective engagement with their peers in order to prepare for their emergence as independent beings, capable of surviving in the collective world. Collective group activity also allows for the mitigation of risk damage because the group is there to assist. A body of social scientists point to the role that collective capability enhancement plays in adult activity. The same applies for adolescents. The collective can not only do more, it can also often take individuals further than they can go on their own because of the collective’s aggregate qualities and strength of numbers. Meanwhile the group means others are on hand to pick up those who fall over on the way.
Psychologists have been puzzling over individuals’ resilience but more needs to be done to look beneath the umbrella of the collective to see how resilience is built up by stretching experiences, including in terms of risk-taking and handling disappointment and physical and emotional setbacks. It is for this reason that children who engage in organising their peers for play or other social activities often become social organisers or leaders; because they develop more resilience to organisational setbacks and disappointment and more balanced assessments of risk.

It is through engagement with their peers that adolescents crucially develop their sense of identity, resilience and self-esteem. As a result, teenagers are drawn to transfer their source of emotional reward from the nurturing parents to their collectively empowered peer world. But the collectively empowered peer world is a new and complex environment for adolescents to manage and, almost by definition, the parents find themselves locked out of it. For these reasons, parents find this stage of the cherub childhood often far more emotionally challenging than it is rewarding.

Parental fears and governmental desire for a disciplined workforce have engendered an industry of pathologising teenagers, asserting that adolescents’ indiscipline is the problem, which is down to their biology. It is common to quote neuroscientists who put teenage angst, trauma and “volatility” down to the “plasticity” or the rapid development of their brains. Others insist that it is biologically natural for teenagers to rebel. They casually gloss over the stance of those neuroscientists who reject this form of biologization. Epstein and Ong(v), for example, point out that social anthropologists, such as Margaret Mead have, over almost a century, studied 100 other cultures and not evidenced the level of teenage angst and trauma that pervades Western society.

Epstein and Ong’s observations should have the social sciences questioning why Western society generates trauma for so many adolescents and looking at structural issues whilst placing the biological issues within that context.

The lexicon explaining away adolescents’ societal oppression sits well alongside the past Western use of “science” to justify the oppression of women and the Black, Asian and ethnic minority populations and slaves. The ruling elites resorted to claims about the unsuitability of the disenfranchised to emancipation because of their mental capacity; to them possessing small brains, being infantile, volatile and not fit to decide their own fate.

Whilst there are also major political issues here, social work needs to consider the damage being done to young people by the tendency to infantilise, objectify and atomise adolescents and avoid recognising their considerable positive agency. The growing introduction to social work practice of peer assessments of service users can offer a start. My fear is that, unless much more research and training is directed to the positive functions of adolescent agency and peer relationships (such as in resilience building), social workers will focus on peer assessments for risk management rather than young people’s development. We will not then be able to stem the tide, driven by the marketisation of education to further atomise our young people, leaving them even more chronically susceptible to adverse outcomes and intense trauma.

The discourses arising from lockdown isolation can be a springboard to social science and social work prioritising peer relationships and agency in child and adolescent development. We need to move from the tokenism of children’s participation to create models of intergenerational co-operation where young people and their own autonomous organisations are treated as experts in their experience of childhood and work with adults on an equal level as partners, where adults really listen to them, discuss their ideas, debate tactics and strategy with them and then act alongside them to advance their visions(vi). This will not be easy but it can be done as evidenced by working children’s organisations such as MANTHOC(vii) in Peru.

In conclusion, how might prioritising adolescent peer relationships and agency change practice as social workers and parents?

What would a care system look like for the placements of children and adolescents? Would it:
- focus on adolescents staying in the same schools and colleges, the same town rather than prioritising adult attachments?
- focus on building strong peer relationships from the earliest possible age?
- keep siblings together as many social workers did successfully in the past, even creating sibling households?
- offer young people the right to the roof over their head?

In society as whole would it, for example:
- mean refocussing on the creation of safe spaces for children, restoring the youth clubs and giving young people a democratically organised share of shaping youth services at all levels?
- issue age-based, binding referenda so teenagers can have meaningful discussion and make collective decisions on their age-based rights and responsibilities?
- encourage support for autonomous collective empowerment efforts of young people
- bring in intergenerational co-operation classes in schools, including parenting classes, with all those in organisations working with children being trained in intergenerational co-operation?

Paint on Face

Dr Phil Frampton, Founding Chair of Care Leavers Association, 2000-2004

Published by the International Federation of Social Workers, the paperback version of Phil’s new book, Youth and the Mystery Wall: Adolescent Trauma, is available at www.centralbooks.com and other online bookstores, RRP £14.95 and as a free PDF download at https://www.ifsw.org/product/books/youth-and-the-mystery-wall/

Picture credit: Simon Hadley

References:
i. Children's Working World through the Lens of Class, Anjan Chakrabarti, Journal of Social and Economic Development July - Dec. 2007
ii. Sibling Relationships and Influences in Childhood and Adolescence, McHale, Updegraff and Whiteman, 2012
iii. The Golly in the Cupboard, Frampton, Tamic Publications, 2004
iv. Changing Education Paradigms, Robinson, 2008 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U)
v. Are the Brains of Reckless Teens More Mature Than Those of Their Prudent Peers? Epstein and Ong, Scientific American, August, 2009)
vi. What Working Children in Peru Can Teach us about Intergenerational Fairness, Jessica Taft www.if.org.uk/2022/07/21/what-working-children-in-peru-can-teach-us-about-intergenerational-fairness
vii. The Kids Are in Charge: Activism and Power in Peru's Movement of Working Children, Jessica Taft, 2019

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