Discussion

The children and young people in our study indicated that their most important ambition was to have good friends. In School Years 8 and 9 (12-13 and 13-14 years) this was more important for girls than for boys. The second most important ambition was the desire to have good health. Third was to be in love with someone special and in School Year 7 this was more important for boys than for girls. The desire to have children was much less important, appearing low down on the overall rankings and considered to be only marginally more important than owning a house and travelling/seeing the world.

The overall importance of friends is not surprising given the age of the sample. Previous research has documented the importance of peer group relationships during middle childhood and adolescence and this is often particularly true for girls (see Cottrell 1996). The importance of the desire for good health is also supported by research that has documented the health concerns of young people (Ackard and Neumark-Sztainer 2001) and their health information seeking behaviours (Borzekowski and Rickert 2001). The relative importance of being in love with someone special in adulthood is to be expected as it has been noted that young people's conceptions of love are consistent with adults' conceptions regardless of whether or not they have experience of romantic love (Connolly et al. 1999). However, the finding that this ambition was significantly more important for boys than girls in Year 7 was unexpected. Gender stereotyping generates the expectation that boys would not routinely place a high value on so-called 'feminine' emotions such as love. Our finding questions gender stereotypes about what is important for boys and girls at different ages.

Although the ranking exercise was slightly adapted for inclusion in this study, the findings on priorities for adulthood do not support the earlier findings of Roberts and Sachdev (1996). In our study having good health was seen as considerably more important and having children considerably less important. It is possible that such differences in the ranking of ambitions have occurred because of age-group differences in the two samples.

Those in Roberts and Sachdev's (1996) study were 12-19-years-old and the inclusion of young adults may have increased the relative importance of childbearing since this is more likely to be on the agendas of 17-19-year-olds than it is for 10-11-year-olds.

Although 'having children of my own' was seen by our sample as less important than other ambitions, clear age and gender differences emerged in the rankings given, although statistically significant gender differences were only observed amongst Year 7 pupils. Marked age difference fluctuations were noted as opposed to a consistent pattern of either increasing or decreasing importance. It is unclear exactly why these fluctuations have emerged and further research is indicated. The onset of puberty may provide a partial explanation as fewer extreme gender differences are observed post-Year 8. The transition from primary to secondary school and increased interaction with the opposite sex post-puberty may also be a possible explanation. In addition, it may be that the steady increase in the importance of the desire for children for participants during Years 10 and 11 may be due to increasing awareness of societal expectations to reproduce in adulthood.

It is clear that while some children and young people may have idealized beliefs about parenthood, others are able to comprehend the limitations and difficulties that children might bring. The potential problems ofparenthood highlighted by the children in this sample are consistent with previous research with adults (Callan 1983, 1987; Ussher 2000).

Age was another theme in meaning ofparenthood. The notion ofbeing too young to think about having children was discussed by younger participants and many older participants had clear thoughts about the age at which they would want their own children. This indicates an understanding of the notion of planned life events. One finding from our study is that while not all children and young people were currently thinking about having children of their own, some expressed their awareness that their views would change as they got older. Many indicated that they expected to be parents at some point in their adulthood and that they could anticipate how it might feel to be unable to have children (see Chapter 3).

The gender and age differences observed in participants' ranking of ambitions and priorities for adulthood indicate that we do need to be wary of adopting stereotypical ideas about what may be important for boys and for girls at different ages. Contrary to popular belief, boys may place a high priority on future parenthood. This finding contradicts previous research, which has suggested that boys do not grow up thinking of themselves as future fathers (Mahlstedt 1985). The message is that time and care must be taken by adults in ascertaining individual children's current and future ambitions for adulthood.

Note

1 We would like to thank The Candlelighters Trust for funding the research cited in this and the following chapter. We would also like to thank Dr Ian Lewis, the children and schools who took part in the study and the local Education Authority who supported the work.

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