Observing Children and Families: Beyond the Surface

Observing Children and Families: Beyond the Surface


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ISBN-13: 9781910391624
Publisher: Critical Publishing
Publication date: 11/18/2015
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 6.80(w) x 9.60(h) x 0.30(d)

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Observing Children and Families

Beyond the Surface

By Gill Butler

Critical Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Gill Butler, Pia Parry
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-910391-64-8


Seen, but not seen and not heard


• To explore current perceptions of children in the UK and explore the impact that these may have on practice with children and their families and carers.

• To consider the difficulties in seeing and hearing children, as revealed through official inquiries into child deaths, drawing on findings from research, government inquiries and Serious Case Reviews, from Maria Colwell to Daniel Pelka.

• To reflect on the persistence of the difficulties in seeing and hearing children.


I don't bother observing babies: there's nothing to see.

I can't think of anything more boring.

Comments like these were made to me on a number of occasions when I was practising as a children's guardian and often reflect the assumptions made by some students and practitioners, who think that observing babies will not be very worthwhile. In practice we have found that when social work students are asked to find a child to observe between 0 and 5 years old, they very rarely choose to observe young babies. While the reasons given are usually practical, they may be seen as the extreme end of ambivalent feelings about spending time with infants, children and young people. This chapter will help us to begin to understand some of the reasons why this may be difficult and will illustrate the persistence of the difficulties in seeing and understanding children's experience.


When someone says 'children', what are the first ten words that come to mind?

Write them down.

Looking at those words, what do they reflect in terms of your views about children?

Repeat the exercise, but this time with the word 'babies'.


At what age do you think children should be held criminally responsible for their actions?

How would you justify this?

What does this tell you about your perception of children?

Perceptions of children

The notion of childhood as something that is other than and different to adulthood is comparatively recent. Hendrick (2005: 31) argues that there are four influential constructions of children and young people in Britain:

children as victims, highly vulnerable and in need of protection (abused children);

children as incomplete adults, human becomings (Qvortrup 1994);

children as a threat to social order (moral outrage at young offenders);

children as redemptive, an investment against an uncertain future: this view of children and young people emphasises their importance to society in the future.

All of these perceptions can present potential blocks to feeling that there is something to be learned from spending time with children and that it is worthwhile engaging with their lived experience. The first two are particularly problematic and relevant to practitioners, so these will be explored more fully below.

Children as victims

Few things provoke a stronger public outcry than the death of children at the hands of 'strangers', paedophiles or sometimes even those who care for them. Although the number of such deaths is relatively small there is usually widespread publicity, a desire to attribute blame and a cry for something to be done to reduce risks, so ensuring that children are more effectively protected in the future. While the portrayal of children as victims, who are vulnerable and often unable to protect themselves, is in such instances entirely appropriate, it has a wider impact on perceptions of children generally. The view of children as dependent, helpless and in need of adult protection has contributed to increasingly limited opportunities for children to exercise appropriate independence in late twentieth century Britain (Alderson 2000). Changes in the environment are also highlighted by Alderson as further contributing to the virtual imprisonment of children in their own homes. Hence, while in 1971 80 per cent of British school children aged seven to eight went to school on their own, by 1990 only 9 per cent did so (Hillman, Adams and Whiteleg, cited in Alderson 2000: 99). Lansdown (1995) has drawn helpful distinctions between children's inherent dependence and that which is structured by the society that they live in.

Similarly, attitudes to children working have also changed, so within the framework of the law there is now a 'protectionist discourse' (James, Jenks and Prout 1998) that regards the employment of young children as intrinsically problematic. Cunningham suggests that this has had a problematic impact:

So fixated are we on giving our children a long and happy childhood that we downplay their abilities and their resilience. To think of children as potential victims in need of protection is a very modern outlook, and it probably does no-one a service.

(Cunningham 2006: 245)

My tendency to view children in this way was vividly illustrated when I was visiting South Africa some years ago. I saw a young girl, at most six years old, carrying a baby (approximately 9–12 months) on her back, purposefully making her way along and across a busy road. She did this carefully and competently. The baby on her back had his arms curled around her; he looked chubby and alert. The image has always stayed in my mind, as it was a sight that did not fit with my view of children's competence and the level of responsibility that they should be afforded.


Do you agree with Cunningham's view, stated above, that it is unhelpful to see children as potential victims? Compile a list of the possible advantages and disadvantages.

Children as incomplete adults, or as 'human becomings' (Qvortrup 1994)

Seeing childhood as a transient state to be passed through, en route to becoming a fully fledged member of the human race, renders it something of less value than mature adulthood. Children are often considered to be too young to be able to comment, or contribute to discussions, even where the subject matter directly affects them. Their incomplete understanding and inexperience has been used to justify not giving children and young people a voice in democratic processes until the age of 18 in the UK, although interestingly when it is politically expedient, this can change: the voting age was reduced to 16 in Scotland to enable young people to participate in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

The view of children as incomplete is subtly reinforced through developmental psychology, which provides a highly influential framework for professionals' understanding of children. Hence it has been widely accepted that children develop increasing ability according to certain established stages that are strongly related to age. While such frameworks can be helpful (as discussed in Chapter 4) they may also be problematic. Mayall (1996) and James, Jenks and Prout (1998: 17–19) draw attention to the established critiques of Piaget, which have substantially undermined his findings. Their critiques highlight the dangers in:

• decontextualising our understanding of children;

• underestimating their competence;

• seeing them as passive recipients of socialisation processes.

Furthermore Piaget's early experiments seeking to identify children's cognitive abilities treated children as laboratory objects, to be classified according to their developmental stage, which was in turn linked to a specified age. His notion of the natural child, passing through stages to reach maturity, has persisted, and despite the recognition of the need for more flexible and interactionist perspectives, developmental frameworks continue to inform the way that health and social care professionals view children. It could be argued that the persistence of a decontextualised understanding of children is politically convenient within a neoliberal ideology, as the concentrated focus on the child in isolation from their family and environment removes the need to look at the impact of poverty, poor housing and deprivation (Featherstone 2014: 2).

These difficulties can create a tendency to limit our gaze, viewing children in relation to their level of conformity, or deviance from the framework, as an object of study, rather than a unique human being with individual qualities and abilities. Mayall (2002: 21) points out that:

[C]hildren are social actors; that is they take part in family relationships from the word go; they express their wishes, demonstrate strong attachments, jealousy and delight, seek justice.

If children are not recognised as social actors, it arguably reduces the need to engage with them, or to spend time with them trying to understand their subjective reality (Hill and Tisdell 1997). It also reduces the possibility of children being able to exercise agency. The term agency is used by sociologists to refer to the ability of a person to make a difference to interactions and decisions. Within the Children Act (1989), which provides the current framework for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children, there is a clear expectation that children are recognised as social actors and arguably as having agency, as in making any decision about the welfare of a child, courts are required to have particular regard to

the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding).

(Children Act 1989 Part 1.1.3 a)

A further difficulty identified by Skolnick (Mayall 1996: 46) is that implicit in the notion of stages of development must be the notion that there is a final stage, adulthood, when development is complete and full citizenship attained. Inevitably this raises the question as to when in adulthood our development can be said to be complete – at 20, or 40, or 60, or perhaps when we have children? Presumably then some adults must be described as developmentally immature; should they therefore be excluded from full participation in society? Should adults with dementia or mental health issues therefore be excluded?

Clearly this line of thinking is dangerous, as we accept that our development as adults is a slow, evolutionary process, influenced by interactions with those around us, as well as our environment, and that regardless of our development or competence we all have a right to be heard, to exercise agency and to participate. It is also deeply disturbing, as this is precisely the line of thinking that has so often been used by the powerful to exclude other less powerful members of society (women, black people and people with disabilities) from full participation. It is important to recognise the parallels in the exclusion of children from participation, as they also have a minority status. Many of the arguments used to negate the contribution of children, such as 'they will only say what they think you want to hear', are equally true for adults, particularly where there may be consequences in relation to revealing information that the speaker fears may result in a course of action that is unwelcome. What this does mean is that we should always take time to consider the spoken word in the context of other messages conveyed non-verbally and received through our senses.

Further challenges to established ways of viewing children are posed by Bluebond-Langner and Alderson's research, with seriously ill children, cited in Alderson (2000). They found that children's understanding was more closely related to experience than to age. Alderson (2000) explored the possibility of actively consulting very young children on a range of issues. She found that giving sufficient information in appropriate ways enabled children to participate.


Write down how you would feel if you were asked to observe a child aged three for one hour, on three occasions.

What does this tell you about you feel about spending time with young children? How would this be different with a baby, or a young person?

How do these perceptions of children impact on the practice of social workers?

The initial part of this chapter has focused on the way in which childhood and children's lives are constructed and given meaning within the UK today. It has been suggested that this contributes to a view that limits the understanding of childhood as being worthwhile in its own right and of children as competent social actors.

If the present of childhood is not seen as of value, inevitably the actual presence of children is less likely to be seen as necessary. It may then be difficult for hard-pressed practitioners to justify spending their limited time with children. As children become less visible, what may also be missed is the capacity of the child to contribute to an understanding of their experience, albeit with the support of the social worker, because their competence and experience is not recognised.

If as practitioners we are uncertain about the priority to be accorded to gaining information directly from children who have meaningful expressive language, we may find it even more difficult to prioritise spending time with children who do not have expressive language, either because of their age, developmental delay, disability or because English is not their first language.

Child death inquiries

Why look at child death inquiries?

We have considered some current perceptions of children that may impact on practice. The next section will provide some brief summaries of child death reviews, selected from each decade in the last 40 years. They illustrate some of the consistent difficulties that arise in seeing beyond the surface of what is presented, which also emerge in the overview studies of Serious Case Reviews (Brandon et al 2012).

However, before turning to these it is important to contextualise them. In 2009–10, of the 11 million children in England, 38,400 were the subject of a child protection plan (Brandon et al 2012). They estimate that there were approximately 85 violent and maltreatment-related child (0–17) deaths in that year. Of those, only 10 per cent had a child protection plan in place, a decrease of 6 per cent from the previous two-year period. This suggests that many of the children who died had not previously been recognised as high risk, so perhaps were less well known to social workers.

Pritchard and Williams (2010), using data from the World Health Organization (WHO) between 1974 and 2006, found that deaths in England and Wales that could be attributed to child abuse decreased significantly, compared to deaths from other causes during that time. They contrasted this with findings in other countries, notably the USA, where the reverse was true. It could therefore be argued that given the relative success of statutory services in intervening effectively in the lives of so many vulnerable children, it is inappropriate to focus on the very small number of children each year who die as a result of negligent or abusive behaviour by their parents.

However, given the often extreme suffering of the children concerned, it can also be argued that it is difficult to understand why no one was able to see and appreciate the seriousness of what was happening, despite some involvement in most cases of a number of statutory services, including health, education and social work. Thus, if some of the most vulnerable children are not seen or heard, it may be reasonable to assume that similar difficulties are occurring for other children who are in need and are similarly not understood.


When looking at the following summaries, consider how far the perceptions of children outlined above may have affected the practice of the professionals with whom the children came into contact.

Can you identify any other themes or issues?

1973: Maria Colwell died, aged seven years

Maria was the youngest of five children. Her father, who had left shortly after her birth, died when she was four months old. Her mother was unable to cope and so Maria went to live with her aunt, while the other four children were received into care. In June 1966 at the age of 15 months she was briefly removed by her mother from the care of her aunt and placed with another woman, who was deemed by social services to be unsuitable. She was then returned to the care of her aunt, but it was recognised that this was not a permanent solution. It is important when reflecting on these events to recognise that the legal framework was different and that the clear expectation was that children should be returned to a parent as long as they were considered to be a 'fit person'.

By 1970 Maria's mother, having formed a new relationship and had another three children, wanted Maria back. There was consequently a great deal of social work involvement with the family. Maria made her resistance to returning to her birth mother (Pauline Kepple) and step-father very clear to her social worker, who witnessed her distress. On one occasion the social worker had to abandon an attempt to collect Maria and take her to visit her mother because she was so distressed. On another occasion, the report of the Committee of Inquiry states that:

Maria continued to cry and said she wanted to go back to 'mummy and daddy Cooper' and begged not to be sent back to Pauline. When Mrs Kepple appeared to claim her Maria cringed, according to Mrs Shirley (another aunt).

(DHSS 1974: 29)


Excerpted from Observing Children and Families by Gill Butler. Copyright © 2015 Gill Butler, Pia Parry. Excerpted by permission of Critical Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of figures iv

Meet the authors v

Acknowledgements vi

Introduction 1

1 Seen, but not seen and not heard 7

2 Approaches to observation Pia Parry 25

3 Developing skills in observation 43

4 Using observation in practice 63

5 Making sense of what we observe: theory helps! 82

Concluding thoughts 101

Index 103

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