Beyond normal, or a good enough childhood?

On Monday night I had the honour of acting as discussant for Professor Ann Phoenix who delivered the first ever Children & Society annual lecture at Senate house in London. Children & Society is an international, interdisciplinary journal publishing high quality research and debate on all aspects of childhood and policies and services for children and young people – and since 2012 has been edited by myself, and three former colleague at the Open University – Mary Jane Kehily, Heather Montgomery and Lindsay Odell. It is closely linked with the National Children’s Bureau who with the publishers Wiley hosted the event and reception. Our aim for the annual lecture was to intervene in public debates around childhood, developing and promoting arguments that are research lead, critical and child-centred. Ann certainly delivered this with her lecture entitled ‘Contextualising policies for a good childhood: complexity, difference and non-normative experience’. A version of the lecture will be published in the journal and a podcast interview with Ann talking about her ideas will be published online at the same time – but here I just want to give a taste of what was being said. You might also want to follow up discussion on Twitter #Children&Society.

A central idea in Ann Phoenix’s work over many years has been ‘normalised absence and pathologised presence’ – but what does this mean? Basically, when we talk about something in the abstract or general sense – for example ‘motherhood’ or ‘childhood’ – we forget to say that in fact we are usually describing the experience of one particular group (often the white middle class)  – this is normalised absence. However, when we talk about the experience of other groups we make a very big deal about the particularity of their experience. So for example we always notice and comments on race, on homosexuality or on economic marginality. We don’t simply talk about these people as ‘mothers’ or ‘children’ – they are defined through their difference. This is what Ann means by pathologised presence. Ann argues that normalised absence and pathologised presence deeply structure the ways in which we research and make policy around children and families. So much so that we simply take this for granted and cease to notice it. Moreover, research that works with large data sets can reinforce this way of thinking- focusing attention on the statistical norm and presenting it as the ‘normal’ in a sense of value. This is how we get to ideas of good childhood defined in terms of an averaging out of the situations of the many – yet failing to represent the actuality of any.

But  what might the world look like if we started from the particular instead? Ann’s Fellowship has enabled her to explore childhood experience through the accounts of three groups of adults- (yes adults! I will get to that in a moment). These include people who due to chain migration were not brought up by their parents, those who act as language brokers for their parents and an third group who grew up in families where they were visibly different to siblings and/ or parents (usually as a result of adoption or mixed parentage). Through an exploration of the moving and fascinating accounts of these three groups of adults about their childhood experience, Ann revealed a number of important insights: how the right amount of adversity generates resilience; the sophistication and creativity of children and they ways in which historical events (big and small) shape the cultures of families and divisions within them. Ann’s approach showed that by looking at the experience of those who are generally excluded from the norm we may learn a great deal – insights that have general relevance. One example offered was the ways in which children who language broker for their parents tend to engage in a complex practice of ‘para-phrasing’ which goes beyond simple translation – something that we might say characterises communication within families more generally. Another example offered was the way in which chain migration can result in families within families: with those children born in Jamaica feeling like a different family from those born and raised in the UK. Again, the family within the family is a truth with much wider salience – that might be recognised by families divided by the 11 plus examination for example.

The lessons’ of Ann’s work for policy and practice are profound. We need to think about difference as contingent, situated and universal. It is not the preserve of certain groups. Practice with children and families needs to assume difference but not to presume what it is. Ann was clear that we need to make sure that we do not exclude the ‘excluded’ from the normative – and demand that they inhabit shameful categories – or policy solutions that rely on shame. And finally, she encouraged us to take the long view – considering the impact of events and interventions cumulatively over the lifetime. Which brings me back to adults. As Hilary Emery the Director of the National Childrens Bureau observed in her summing up, not only did Ann succeed in being research lead and critical, she also showed us that you can be child-centred by taking the adult seriously and working to retrace the ways in which childhood experience forms the adult subject and is remade and relived through memories and stories within families.

To find out more about Children & Society see


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