Rural New Zealand childhoods: social constructions and lived experiences

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Powell, MA 2010, 'Rural New Zealand childhoods: social constructions and lived experiences', PhD thesis, University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ.


Rural New Zealand holds a place of unparalleled importance in the affection of New Zealanders, with mythologised aspects incorporated into the national identity. Although rural families make up a significant proportion of New Zealand's diverse and rapidly changing population, rural children have received little specific research attention. The aim of this qualitative research project, framed within Childhood Studies theory, was to explore the perspectives and lived experiences of children and parents in a diverse range of rural environments. Data was collected from 36 children (21 girls and 15 boys), aged between 6 and 11 years, and 36 of their parents. The participants were recruited from four specific rural locations, ranging from 'rural with high urban influence', 'rural with moderate urban influence', 'rural with low urban influence' to 'highly rural/remote'. Several data collection methods were used including interviews with children and parents, children's construction of artwork and photographs, and follow-up interviews with children one year later. An initial interview was developed to obtain children's informed consent, address other ethical concerns, and help structure the research process with child participants. The range of localities highlighted the commonalities and diversity of rural childhood and family experiences. Consistent with other Minority world research, the findings indicated that constructions of rural childhood predominantly accord with a discourse of the rural idyll. However, in New Zealand, the rural childhood idyll has a specific character, different aspects of which are emphasised in particular rural contexts. Farming parents and those in more remote areas, placed great importance on community, self reliance and practical skills, whereas parents in rural areas near urban centres emphasised the importance of spatial freedom for children. All the parents tended to be satisfied with rural living and what it offered their children, emphasizing perceived benefits and the fostering of skills and attributes, and downplaying negative aspects. However, alternative constructions of rural childhood and family life were also evident, related to the geographical isolation and low population density of rural areas and exacerbated by other social variables, such as financial hardship. A discourse of social isolation emerged, related to difficulties accessing services and facilities, and social and economic deprivation. Children were generally positive about rural living. Their constructions of rural childhood, focused on being outdoors and the social aspects of rural life. Children creatively maximized opportunities for social participation, in multiple relationships, across a range of contexts. They expressed their agency and competency in complex, sometimes challenging conditions, in partnership with others, particularly parents, negating dominant discourses of childhood which perceive children as passive, immature and dependent. However, children also experienced aspects of rural life that were dull, dangerous or difficult. The modernistic dualisms of rural and urban, and childhood and adulthood, were challenged as more complex and nuanced constructions of rural childhood were uncovered. These findings have implications for policy, which could potentially be obscured by the dominant construction of the rural idyll. This study highlights the importance of including rural children as research participants, with their voices contributing to more robust and authentic constructions of childhood.