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The study of children has, traditionally, drawn heavily upon models of childhood much influenced by the twin themes of socialization and development. Sociologists and anthropologists, for instance, hold the view that children required socialization, primarily by families and kin but later by schools and community organizations, through which they would acquire the skills and knowledge necessary for full adult life. This complements the core premises of developmental psychology, the primary discipline within which childhood has been studied, which sees childhood as a series of stages through which children progressively accumulated the psychological and emotional skills necessary for well-adjusted adults. In recent times, however, both paradigms have come in for sustained critical discussion. The ‘new social studies of childhood’ has, in particular, placed considerable emphasis upon children as ‘beings’ rather than ‘becomings’; and that children’s lives need to be studied in the here and now, rather than in terms of what they may or may not become in the future.
One important consequence of this has been a growing concern with the agency of children. The traditional African perception of childhood has been one in which children are held as passive bearers of the imperatives of psychological development or the requirements of participation in civil society as well as the accumulation of those cultural and social norms that govern social life. This perception and practice is supported by the ethos of tightly-knit traditional societies where children’s inherent capacities regarding thought processes and initiatives are deeply subsumed in the demands and aspirations of adults. But this has been changing considerably as a result of the global social and economic transformations in a world increasingly shaped by globalization.
Indeed, the contemporary history of Africa provides an illustration of the participation of children and youth in the struggles for liberation from the yoke of colonialism, apartheid or dictatorship. Modernization, arising from internal social dynamics and exogenous pressures, has affected traditional beliefs and practices. However, this development has created palpable tensions between ‘traditionalists’ and ’modernizers’, governments and NGOs (often at the forefront of social change) adults and children, etc. For instance, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) formally provides considerable scope to childhood and positions children to be involved in the determination of vital aspects of their lives. In spite of the subservient position of children in society, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child which is supposed to be more consistent with our African culture, concedes social change and the resultant capacity of children to be self-determining in many regards.
In reality, however, many of the grounds ceded to children in both the CRC and African Charter are still in contention. The ubiquitous worldwide web has expanded the mental reach and virtual boundaries of African children. All these have expanded children’s capacity to be more assertive and proactive in homes and communities as well as invigorated their survival and self-preservation instincts. The consequent emphasis therefore is on the competencies, skills and creativity that children possess, and how they engage with and manipulate the worlds around them.
Yet, are the growing competencies of African children solely attributable to local and global efforts to expand the frontiers of individual power? Or is it the unwitting outcome of the pervasive poverty that has thrust many children in that role of having to make decisions and choices for themselves, even if they do not possess sufficient capacity to do so? After all, the social and economic reality of many African societies is one of extreme poverty and deprivation that drive everybody to be creative and to evolve additional capacities for survival.