The word childhood is influenced by various aspects that result in it having many different definitions depending on the person and the environment they are in. When someone tries to understand the aspect of childhood there is an aggressive need of the understanding for cultures because that is one of the factors that define or rather affect the word, as it also helps us determine exactly what we expect from children and their place as well as rights in the society.
Looking at the UNICEF documents of UNCRC they define childhood as the time for a child to be in school and at play, to grow strong and confident with the love and encouragement of their family and an extended community of caring adults (UNICEF, n.d.). According to Merriam Webster dictionary childhood is either the state or period of being a child or the early period in the development of something (Merriam Webster Dictionary). According to a research article, childhood in African indigenous societies have viewed childhood in terms of intergenerational obligations of support and reciprocity, and deemed the period of childhood as that of acquiring the social and technical skills necessary to perform the future roles of adulthood (Nhenga-Chakarisa, 2001).
Childhood, child-rearing as well as care-giving are all areas of human development which are largely taken for granted and appreciated differently within different cultures as well as sub-cultures because of this the beginning and the end of childhood they vary greatly across countries. Therefore, we all agree that childhood does not have a proper definition but it is rather something that is socially constructed, this is so because we believe that it is not the same everywhere and while all societies acknowledge that children are different from adults, how they are different and what they are expected to do at different age groups varies with the various societies. Looking at the Western World in contrary to the African society there is potential for conflict in relation as well as conflict of interest in subjects that talk about childhood and ideologies as well as child development theories and the practices. The dominant views that emanate from the western culture and belief definitely stifle local, traditional as well as culturally specific practices as compared to the African society. When we look at things that involve cultures there are certain things associated with these aspects that include cultural relavatism and ethnocentism.
Cultural relavatism is the recognition that societies differ in their cultural attitudes towards social phenomena and therefore no universal criteria can be applied to compare one cultural view with another (James & James, 2012). Culture can then therefore only be judged through reference to their own standards. Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture and way of behaving is the correct way and all others are then judged by this standard. Culture is a major factor and it plays then the most important role on a child’s upbringing and determines ways in which children are viewed, work as well as the prevailing opinions about the value of that work and the attitudes to the raising of children.
The ideas of development define childhood and express beliefs about children’s nature, what they are capable of doing and how they should be integrated into society. African societies deem childhood as a time for learning, character building and acquiring the social and technical skills necessary to perform the future roles of adulthood. Children present lineage continuity and most importantly, the material survival of families and the community at large.
Issues that are very much related to working children also challenge the cultural perspectives about children and childhood as well as what is deemed acceptable and appropriate. (Hendry, 2008) looked at cultures, traditions and their meaning and symbolism but initiation rites for example, they vary widely but exist across many societies to then signify a stage of development in childhood or in the transition towards adulthood. In some African cultures these rites are grueling physical tests but they provide continuity and familiarity to the social group like they are meant to.
The different views of childhood will have formed within a particular cultural context and will therefore be seen as how things are and should be. There is a concept of self and as connected to others which is then common in many African cultures and then develops as part of a rich socialization process which begins after birth. This is in contrast to the earliest experiences of the infants in Western cultures who live in a nuclear family with two parents and develop attachments with them (Westwood, 2013).
Looking at the western context they mark the end of childhood at a certain age or after stages as supported by Erickson’s life stage development theory (Erickson, 1995) he suggested that all children go through similar stages or sequences and each of the different cultures has developed its own way of both monitoring and protecting children as they transit each stage. (Owusu-Bempah, 2007) he suggested that a child development relies as much on the environment and the nurturing that children receive as it does on the knowledge and understanding they have about their heritage, cultural origins and the sense of being connected to their genealogical (Westwood, 2013).
Mostly people judge and distinguish children from adults by referring to the physical differences which includes things like the girls reaching their puberty and developing hips and boys having a beard other than that they also consider power relationship. However, (Nhenga-Chakarisa, 2001) in her article highlights that it is therefore complicated by a diversity of possible relationships within each cultural groups. As society nearly always has a formal division of roles and responsibilities that amounts to the setting of a boundary between childhood and adulthood for example in African societies things like rites of passage or initiation ceremonies which they celebrate the end of childhood (Archard, 1993).
Another dimension that can be used by Africans that is not the fixed stages or the life developmental stages are the various vantage points from which they dictate differences from childhood and adulthood include the moral angle that a person may be deemed incapable, the virtue of their immaturity are also seen as lacking in adult reason or knowledge as well as political angle from which children are thought to be unable to contribute towards and to participate in the day to day running of the society which means they deem end of childhood at puberty (Archard, 1993).
Of course, there is the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convection and the Child Rights Convection (CRC) define a child as every human being below the age of 18 years, but this become in an issue if it to be introduced to African culture whereby the determinants of adult stage are seen as are both biologically and socially constructed. Judging from the abovementioned information, the African conception about childhood then highly depends on the socio-economic, environmental and cultural dynamics of any given society.
In the pre-colonial Africa, childhood was marked by factors that had more to do with the biology or physical development, as well as the ability, the purpose of which a definition of either childhood or adulthood was of sought and status rather than with the number of years a person has lived (Ncube, 1998). In as much as it is seen as growing and playtime by the western culture in Africa this stage is deemed as a period of training children to perform arduous tasks to toughen and prepare them for adulthood. In the Shona culture a child is entitled to all forms of support in time of need hence why they are taught this at a very young age and it is believed that their transition from childhood to adulthood is smooth considering they have been groomed into it.
Majority of African societies mark the end of childhood when newly found economic responsibilities are acquiring and entrance into the institution of marriages take place. In the Xhosa community, the boys have to go through circumcision rituals, during this process they have to spend several days in the mountains fending for themselves through hunting and gathering. It is said that if any many does not go through this they are seen as a ‘child’ and then regarded for all intents and purposes but even after this they will have to get married and start a family to be seen as an adult.
In Africa, the end of childhood is definitely not marked by a chronological specificity or it ends at a fixed age as compared to the Western culture were people go through certain stages that then mark the end of childhood for example an Africa girl child has the duty to clean the house, cook, wash clothes and take care of younger siblings for the boys the child has duties to work in fields, to harvest and to herd livestock. By doing this they are being groomed to play appropriate roles when they done with the childhood stage as they move to the adulthood.
In conclusion, the Western societies consider the end of childhood at a certain age and they believe that children transition from childhood to adulthood in a chronological way but in Africa the movement of individuals through childhood is marked and the same time not marked by arbitrary fixed ages that lack chronological specificity. Other than that the African communities still adopt the Western cultures especially when they consider child development.
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