An exhibition of Australian artist Bill Henson's photographs, including some works depicting nude children, has provoked a debate between adults over the values that adults should hold in protecting children on one hand and in viewing art on the other. Children and young people themselves have been almost entirely absent. What might change if they were able to participate fully in discussions about sexuality, choice, and representation?
This exclusion of children and young people from the Henson debate is not really surprising: there is a tradition of treating children as both incapable of contributing to the public arena and in need of protection from its dangers. Yet there is also an emerging body of work that argues children are both more capable and more rational than is often assumed. Many also argue that children are entitled to greater participation than they are currently allowed in decisions that affect them. In academic terms, the 'new sociology of childhood' recognises children as actors who shape the world as well as being shaped by their circumstances (James, Jenks & Prout 1998). Children and young people are described increasingly as capable of participating in their lives and in research. Recent and current studies in Australia and the United Kingdom have explored, for example, children's perspectives on their mothers' return to work (Ridge 2007); on caring for a family member with illness or disability (Cass 2007); on poverty; and on out-of-home care and the child welfare system (Mason & Gibson 2004). Social theorists of childhood argue that many psychological theories of human development and socialisation inaccurately depict children as incompetent, asocial, and acultural. Instead, they argue, children's exclusion should be understood in terms of power, if not oppression (Cockburn 1998; Qvortrup 1994).