Hearing and Understanding Children's Voices in Contemporary Australia

Image: Nicolò Bonazzi, (flickr, creative commons)

I am delighted to be making the first contribution to the Children’s Voices blog. This concept began with a one-day symposium in 2016 – Children’s Voices in Contemporary Australia -- that sought to bring together multiple perspectives on the issue of how well children – all children -- are heard in contemporary Australia, and why this matters. My own overlapping experiences of being a researcher, parent, and member of the public were equally important sources of motivation in putting together an event where a meaningful conversation about children’s and young people’s voices could be developed, encouraging individuals from diverse perspectives to find common ground through sharing their questions, experiences, knowledge and passion for contributing to the quality of children’s and young people’s lives. Crucially, this platform had to include the voices of children and young people themselves.

My research background is in medieval literature, a far cry from contemporary Australia in some ways, but through the Centre for the History of Emotion, my work on children’s voices in Middle English narratives is provides insights into how historical moments – including our own – in turn shape, support, value, constrain or deny children’s ability to give voice to their own perspectives, including the emotions that they experience themselves and which others experience in relation to them. More generally, a historically oriented perspective is also useful for thinking about continuity and discontinuity in conceptualising childhood; in other words, for understanding how the past lingers in and shapes the present.

As a mother negotiating the challenges and surprises that parenting throws my way, I have found myself curious about the concepts of childhood and child development that at times operate almost invisibly and at others erupt into intense debates and disagreements in contemporary Australia.  And, not always quite able to relinquish my researcher’s hat, I find myself considering on the one hand what is “timeless” about the experience of being a child and how to honour, indeed nurture that, and on the other, how to assist a child to navigate the specifics of the here and now. How, then, do our contemporary understandings help or hinder us from recognising and supporting features of our children’s development, including the complex and invaluable ability to express what they feel and think?

Like many other “members of the public,” I have learnt of the gruelling and traumatic hardships faced by not just by individual children but by groups, almost classes of children, through media reports. These include the Stolen Generations, child asylum seekers in detention, and most prominently during the planning of the CVCA symposium, survivors testifying in the Royal Inquiry into institutionalised sexual abuse. It seemed to me personally important to bear witness to these reports, but doing so reinforces a sense of distance and fragmentation as much as it does support and connection. I suspect that the uni-directional flow of distressing revelations about the failure of so many adults in their duties towards so many children can be a corrosive and isolating experience for many. As much as we need to know of these events, it is also vitally important that we have access to channels of connection that focus on promoting children’s and young people’s voices and all that this entails. We need to ensure that such dialogue and the sharing of commitment is possible across seeming barriers and divisions. Perhaps what I am welcoming you to is a microcosm of a social order where respect is firmly placed at the centre!

Let the conversation begin!

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Dr Melissa Raine