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Keywords:

  • childhood cancer;
  • sociology of childhood;
  • parenting;
  • mass media

Abstract

We present an analysis of newspaper accounts and parents’ accounts of childhood cancer. Newspaper accounts construct cancer as a threat to the entitlements and category-bound activities of childhood. Newspaper discourses around children with cancer are predominantly eulogising, constructing children as courageous, stoical and inspirational. Parents are characterised as confederates in the ‘battle’ against cancer; as fund-raisers; and as guardians of their children's identities. Little attention is given to parents’ own needs. Parents’ in-depth interview accounts suggest that newspapers are selective and privilege certain types of representations. Parents’ accounts, like those in newspapers, construct childhood cancer as an assault on the rights of childhood. Parents also characterise themselves as having a range of obligations founded on dominant discourses about parenting. However, parents’ descriptions bear little resemblance to newspaper accounts. Rather than the cheerful, uncomplaining and ‘brave’ newspaper representations of children, parents report that children can be distressed, anguished and difficult to manage, especially when being encouraged to submit to painful and frightening medical interventions. Parents themselves experience a range of quality of life impairments, including severe role strain, but find it difficult to voice these because they have to negotiate prevailing discourses about the duties of parenthood. Parents’ accounts do not allow unproblematic access to some external reality; these accounts are just as constructed as newspaper accounts. Both newspapers and parents may draw on common discourses about parenting, childhood and illness, but newspapers are more likely to represent children in idealised ways and to marginalise parents as resources solely for their child's benefit.