The origins of our Present: The struggle for the care of children within the family and society


The struggle for the care of children both within the family and society continues and changes. In this country, Australia, the treatment of children has gone through a number of major identifiable shifts. Initially the formal care and education of very young children, now commonly accepted as the early years, was the privilege only of the very rich. In many respects working class children were regarded as either not worthy, or incapable of being educated. So dire was the situation for the working class that they were reduced to being recipients of charity and volunteers’s good intentions. Aboriginal child rearing has its own special complexities over and above the settler population, their generalised dehumanisation and conditions of slavery still resound with paternalistic attitudes.

Conditions of life in “the 1920s and 1930s saw intense debate about the health and welfare of mothers and children…fuelled by a variety of concerns ranging from fears of ‘race suicide’ to humanitarian concern for the plight of the poor.” (Brennan 1994) Government intervention was effectively non-existent but by the late 1930s the extremely impoverished and unhealthy conditions of overcrowded working class life could not be ignored and were especially compounded by the effects of the First World War and the economic depression.

Consequently many women were left without a breadwinner and were forced into wage slavery themselves, while also suffering indignities at the hands of religious bigots, and the paternalistic class prejudices of the well-to-do philanthropists. Care of children and their mothers were the priority both from social and physical disease. Education as we understand it was not a concern in these circumstances, “During the depression…kindergartens added a ‘meal and sleep’ program…to ensure that children had at least one good meal and a rest each day. … relatively few children attended…the scale of the problem was vast. (Brennan 1994, p35)

While class issues continue to dominate our working and home lives, the inclusion of our concerns in the public discourse is glaringly absent. Perhaps, like the aboriginal and Torres Straight islanders, we are only included when there is a social crisis of a kind that even the most racist political leaders can no longer ignore it, as was the case of the Howard led Coalition Government which initiated the Northern territory intervention into aboriginal affairs. In this regard both ALP leaders of recent time have not only failed to speak to any of our most pressing concerns, they have actively assisted the most powerful people and corporations to disorganise and oppress our attempts to organise the working class.

Citizenship is not only a problematic concept for children, but it is an empty one for the majority, the working class. While Millei and Imre (2009) are thought provoking and raise any number of concerns around the problem of defining what citizenship may mean for children, and so therefore, definitions of a child and children, they too omit our everyday reality. While they confine themselves to the conceptual use of the term in policy documents, they beg the question, for whom, and by who, are policy written? Suffice to say that the word ‘children’ could be substituted with ’adult’, the issues remain, and are the same. Teachers who choose to be disempowered cannot empower the powerless.

Under the Fair Work Act (Workchoices) we do not have rights at work, the right to strike, the right to make our workplaces our places, therefore considering the idea of citizenship as a social and democratic element of the ‘good life’ is rendered especially meaningless. Policy is meaningless unless it is enacted. In regards to education policy, curriculum, and citizenship, it is correct to say it being misrepresented and undermined by the politicians and their departmental, and academic quislings. Rather it is quantitative data gathering, NAPLAN tests, and a generalised distrust of teachers that dominates the discourse – in effect the lowest common denominator prevails. The terms of ‘empowerment’, ‘citizenship’, and ‘rights’, the ‘rhetorical vision’ in social and educational policy will remain a chimera for the majority of us unless we organise and propose alternatives rather than merely continue react to the bourgeoisie’s corporate agendas. .

References

Brennan, D. (1994) The politics of Australian Childcare; From Philanthropy to Feminism, Cambridge University Press, p.33

Millei, Z. and Imre, R. (2009) The Problems with Using the Concept of ‘Citizenship’ in Early Years Policy, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, Vol. 10(3)

 

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