Contemporary discourses on children and parenting in Norway. An empirical study based on two cases
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Background and overall aim: This dissertation aims to explore beliefs and contemporary discourses about children and parenting in Norway. It discusses the possible consequences of these beliefs and discourses for children’s and parents’ positions and possibilities in society. Based on a social constructionist and discourse framework, this study uses two cases, namely the Norwegian same-sex adoption rights debate and the Norwegian Child Welfare Services (NCWS) meeting with immigrant families. The rationale for this choice was that the study of how phenomena such as children and parenting are argued and conceptualized in settings that are different or outside of main-stream in particular contexts can illuminate current perceptions of these phenomena in the wider society. In an increasingly globalized world with rapid social changes, the meanings of children and parenting, in various contexts, are continuously negotiated and re-negotiated. Thus, there is a need for more knowledge about how we currently understand children and parenting, on-going processes in relation to developments in this understanding, and what this may mean and imply for children and parents in contemporary Norway.
Research questions and methods: The following research questions were phrased to illuminate the overall aim: (1) What are Norwegian beliefs about equal marriage and parenting rights for lesbian, gay and heterosexual couples and the welfare of children growing up with lesbian and gay parents? (Paper I). The analyses were based on quantitative data from a web-based nationwide survey (n=1246) carried out in April-May 2008, (2) What images of children can be located in popular views on same-sex adoption rights? (Paper II). The analyses were based on responses to an open-ended question in the same data-set. A discourse analytic approach was chosen to explore images of children when respondents in their own words reflected on provisions for same-sex adopting rights in the New Norwegian Marriage Act; (3) What prevailing discourses on children and parenting can be located in newspaper texts that reflect on and problematize NCWS’ interaction with and intervention in immigrant families? (Paper III). The analyses were based on a body of newspaper texts (80) collected in the period 1 January 2011 – 30 April 2013. The texts featured a debated and often contested meeting between NCWS and immigrant parents. The same discourse analytic approach as for paper II was followed. Research question 4: The possible impact on children and parents of subject positions made available by these discourses was discussed based on the empirical findings from paper II and III.
Empirical findings: Paper I: Slightly less than half the sample supported provisions for equal parenting rights in the New Norwegian Marriage Act. Among those not expressing such support, more respondents were unwilling to take a stand or uncertain as opposed to being against such provisions. Negative beliefs about equal parenting rights for same-sex and heterosexual couples were at large, explained by concerns about the welfare of children growing up in lesbian and gay families. In particular, there was a concern for possible bullying and stigmatization of such children. Paper II: Four concurrent discourses were identified: (1) children need to grow up in ordinary families; (2) children need dedicated parenting; (3) children are subjects of own individual rights, and (4) the best interest of the child is paramount. Discourse 4 seemingly had a superior standing, tentatively positioning children with a superior moral and abstract status. Paper III: Four interrelated and concurrent discourses on children and parenting were located: (1) no tolerance for parenting practices involving violence and force; (2) every child is subject of individual - and equal – rights; (3) good parenting is child-focused and dialogue based, and (4) Norwegian child welfare services – authoritative but also contested in family matters. These discourses as it seems, position children and parents in two main ways, children as pivots, and parents as guarantors for children developing proper skills, respectively.
Discussion and conclusions: 1) Concerning children, understandings in all three papers were, as it seems, informed by a rights discourse, positioning children with individual rights and as citizens entitled to enjoy fundamental welfare state ideals such as for example humanitarianism, autonomy and justice. There is a need for vigilance concerning children’s position as subject of own individual rights. Watering down this position, may imply less power for children in relation to adults and revived notions of children as mainly appendages to the family. Furthermore, in all three papers understandings concerning children were at the same time informed by a risk discourse, positioning children as vulnerable, in need of adult protection, and typically, pushing notions of a sentimentalized child. Sentimentalizing children will imply poorer ability to realize the various contexts in which many children live and the actual challenges that they experience following various life circumstances. Consequently, there is a risk that society will not act, or focus on aspects that may not be helpful for children in their real-life situation. Importantly, both a rights discourse and a risk discourse, through a pre-occupation with safe-guarding and protecting children, feed into a broader discourse of control, and the need to supervise children, also in the family context.
2) Concerning parenting, findings indicated understandings informed by children as individuals, a need for extensive parental dedication, notions that emotional and relational aspects between children and parents were of particular importance, and the need for parents to acquire certain skills in order to appear child-centered, seemingly a premise for appearing competent. In the same-sex parenting debate it was for example typically argued that samesex parents perhaps even more so than other parents, affiliate with this thinking and the importance of such skills. In the case of NCWS meeting with immigrant families, findings showed extensive societal interest in assisting and securing these same values, through good information, but not the least through parent education, training and societal supervision. Processes that standardize and homogenize parenting easily position parents, who may have other experiences and therefore may think different about parenthood, as less valued or deficient. This may also increase feelings of being deviant or “outside” for groups of parents - and counter-act inclusion. Such processes will in general complicate the establishment of productive societal dialogues in this field, and perhaps in particular when meeting with various Norwegian welfare society institutions, where a good dialogue often is considered to be vital for adapted and sustainable help for children and families. Concerning the meeting with NCWS, lack of trust and poor dialogues may typically compel unproductive countermoves and withdrawal strategies from the involved parents. Some groups of children may thereby have less access to timely, necessary and adapted measures and interventions and consequently, enjoy less societal protection than other groups of children.