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Young children's views of Australia and Australians.

Civics and citizenship education in Australia encompass many aspects. These range from knowledge about political structures, democratic processes, and legal obligations and status, to a broader sense of social awareness and consciousness, wherein individuals have rights and responsibilities that guide their interactions with others. This latter interpretation emphasizes a definition of a civil society (Cox, 1995) in which "there is trust, cooperation and reciprocity, ties that bind each and all, and recognition of the interdependence of the private and the public" (Dally, 1999, p. 11). Members of a civil society are committed to working together, based on respect for self and others. Underpinning such a society are constructive notions about identity, relationships with others, difference and diversity, and social justice and equity.

Flanagan and Faison (2001) use the term "civic literacy" to refer to "knowledge about community affairs, political issues and the processes whereby citizens effect change," and the term "civic attachment" to indicate the "affective or emotional connection to the community" (p. 3). Both these aspects have been incorporated in approaches to civics and citizenship education in Australia, where there has been emphasis on developing understandings of how governments work, learning the skills required to become involved in the processes of government, and recognizing the "civic worth of each individual" (Civics Expert Group, 1994, p. 5). The message seems to be that how people feel about their country and their place within it relates to their willingness to engage in processes such as democracy. As Flanagan and Faison (2001) note, "If a democracy is to remain secure and stable, each new generation of her citizens must believe in the system and believe that it works for people like them" (p. 4).

Belonging and a sense of belongingness was a feature in the recent celebrations of a centenary of Australian federation, and in the opening of a national museum committed to documenting what it means to be Australian. At the same time, many Australians--namely, the aboriginal population--are working towards reconciliation after more than two centuries of dispossession and dislocation. The fate of those seeking refuge in Australia is also problematic, promoting much-heated debate about "belongingness" and exclusion. Within this context, researchers have questioned the "ways in which young people understand themselves as Australian, how they feel about this country and their place within it" (Gill & Howard, 2000).

Wenger (1998) has described identity as something that is constantly changing and open to renegotiation, such that "who we are lies in the way we live day to day, not just what we think or say about ourselves" (1998, p. 151). This notion is reflected in the definition of national identity offered by Gill and Howard (1999, p. 2) as a "narrative, a story people tell about themselves in order to lend meaning to their social world."

In previous studies regarding children's sense of national identity, children in the upper primary or early years of secondary school were interviewed (Carrington & Short, 1996; Du Bois-Reymond, 1998; Howard & Gill, 2001). These researchers found an increasingly complex understanding of nationality as children move from initial definitions of nationality as something shared by a distinct group of people who have similar cultural practices, such as language or religion, or identity based on living in a particular area, to an abstract connection between the group of people and the place they inhabit--the nation (Howard & Gill, 2001).

This article investigates young children's views about their national identity and that of their peers. Evidence suggests that young children are aware of social, racial, and cultural differences (MacNaughton & Davis, 2001), but little discussion exists of how this may affect their relationships with others or their willingness to engage in civic processes.

National Identity

In focus group interviews, 42 children (ages 5 to 8 and in the first three years of elementary school) were asked to describe their own identity and explore issues about national identity. The majority of children were drawn from kindergarten classes (n = 23). Others were in Year 1 (n = 5) or Year 2 (n = 14). These children attended two schools in Sydney, Australia. Each school has a high proportion of students from non-English-speaking backgrounds, and this was reflected in the group of children interviewed.

The interviews were conducted in the schools. Each followed a standard format, with the aim to encourage children to engage in conversations with each other, rather than the interviewer (Mayall, 2000); the children could lead the conversation and use this as a means of positioning themselves in relation to their own and others' national identity. What follows are the children's responses to six questions about identity.

What Is Australia? All the children indicated that they were familiar with Australia. Most (30) described Australia as a country, while others referred to it as a continent, island, or place. Others commented that Australia is:

* A nice place to live [Sally]

* A free country [Susan]

* Where koalas live [Stephie]

* The best country in the world [Rachel].

Are You Australian? Responses to this question varied. All children indicated that they lived in Australia, yet only 21 said that they were Australian. When asked to explain why they were not Australian, the children adopted a range of positions, as indicated by the following examples:

Uma: We come from India.

Ally: I'm an Indian and an Australian. I'm [a] lot Indian--no, less Indian because I don't know how to speak a lot of Indian.

Kerry: I'm a quarter Portuguese and half Chinese.

Interviewer: And the other quarter?

Kerry: Australian.

Josey: I'm Chinese.

Interviewer: Were you born in Australia?

Josey: Yes.... Chinese live in Australia. Just my Dad is Chinese. My Dad was born in China and then he came here and got married.

Irene: Are you Chinese?

Josey: Yeah.

Interviewer: Is your Mum Australian?

Josey: Yeah. But I'd like to be Australian.

Celia: My friend is Australian, but her face is Chinese, but she is still Australian... she speaks like an Australian.

Fourteen children readily acknowledged a sense of at least a dual identity (as Uma, Ally, and Kerry did), often drawing on the backgrounds of their parents as well as their own presence in Australia. In another example, Ruth described herself as Australian, but noted that "I'm kind of both, I'm Lebanese and Australian ... my background is Lebanese."

Seven children indicated that they did not consider themselves Australian. Like Josey, some referred to their parents' nationality--"I'm not [Australian], my Dad is Lebanon" [Tina]--and others clearly stated a different nationality--"I'm not [Australian], I'm Italian" [Jenny].

How Do You Know If Somebody Is Australian? According to several children, the best way to find out if someone is Australian is to "ask them." Other means of finding out included:

Iris: You look at their skin. If you are at school, you might ask them. On some days we dress up in different countries and they might wear their country's outfit.

Kerry: Because they speak Australian and because we're in Australia now.

Lyn: People could learn Australian.

Susan: They'd have to say, you know, "G'Day" and go "Hallo, mister."

Ros: They speak Australia and they look Australian.

Fran: They've got pure skin.

Ros: No, they look like, they're, they look like real Australian people.

Interviewer: What do real Australian people look like?

Ros: My brother says that a real Australian wears a singlet with holes in it, and they are like, you know, daggy.

Phillipa: Sometimes you can tell by their face.... Maybe a white-colored skin.

Interviewer: What if they had a dark-colored skin; could they be Australian, then?

Phillipa: They could be Filipino or something.

Rhonda: It doesn't matter about their skin. That's because my Dad is from Lebanon and my Mum was born in Australia.

Jake: Because they sound like they've just come out of the bush.

Interviewer: How might they sound ...?

Jake: They might say "Me thongs" [statement is made in a strong, slow, nasal drawl].

Gemma: About their color, if they are black they might not be Australian, or if they are brown.

Joel: They might be black and they might be Australian.

Gemma: Yes, if they are aboriginal. But I think that most will not be Australian.

How Do You Get To Be Australian? In response to this question, there was a major focus on place of birth--that is, you got to be Australian by being born in Australia.

June: You have to be born in Australia.

Sally: You could be born in China, but if your Mum and your Dad are Australian and your whole family is Australian, then you can't be Chinese.

Lyn: Yeah ... they could have went to China, and then you could have been born there, even though they weren't Chinese.

Interviewer: But June was born in Korea and her Mum and Dad are Korean, and she said that she is Australian.

Sally: No, she is Korea. She was born in Korea. Her Mum and Dad are Korea.

June: Well, I was born in Korea, then I came here and learned English. I'm Korean.

Can You Stop Being Australian and Be Something Else? The most common response was that wherever you were born determined your nationality for life. Only five of the children suggested that changing one's nationality was possible. Susan's comments suggest that her definition of nationality is based on language:

Susan: Sometimes, I don't want to be Australian. I always think that it would be good if it was possible that you could change countries because you want to see what the world is like.

Interviewer: Could you still be Australian and visit other countries?

Susan: Yes, but say you went to Korea and no one in Korea knew how to speak English, and you could only speak to Korean people; it would be good if you could say "OK, I'm Korean" and you could speak to Korean people.

Gemma also focused on language, noting that "if you don't want to be Australian anymore then you can just move to another country and learn to speak that country and just become that country." More common was the sort of response offered by Jake, who believed that being born in one country meant that you had no choice but to adopt that nationality, "because once you've been born, you can't change it."

Is There Anything Special About Being Australian? Seven children indicated that nothing was special about being Australian. Others indicated that "there is something special about all the countries" [Neil] or, in Gemma's words, "If you are born in Australia and that is the country you are born in and you think it's the best country ... but it's not really the best country because everybody thinks their country is the best country because they live in that country.... I like [Australia] because it's the country I live in, and if I lived in another country, then I would like that."

Others described Australia as special because:

* It's got big, wide parks to play footy in [Susan]

* I like the beach [Josie]

* You can wear nice clothes.... In some other countries they have to wear long sleeves like this in summer [Ruby]

* People felt free [Rose]

* There is no dangerous things like torpedoes or war [Ruth]

* No bad things happen [Celia]

* You know lots of people [Linda].

Reuben's comment summarized some of the discussions about safety and feeling safe: [Australia] "is a good place because there is no danger for you and your family."

Some groups of children discussed whether or not it was important to be Australian. Rhonda referred to an abstract feeling: "I like to be Australian, because I just love it and I just like it for some reason." Phillipa stressed her familiarity with Australia: "I was born here. I don't want to leave. I've been here for too long and I'm used to it."

Several other children said it was not important to be Australian: Jenny and Neil explained that "you don't have to be Australian if you don't want to be." Iris commented that she didn't think it was important to be Australian, "It's just fun." Others, including Jake, said "every country was important." Rachel referred to the personal nature of national identity: "If you want Australia to be important, then you can have it important to yourself, but if you don't want it to be special, then you just say it to yourself."


These discussions raise several issues related to children's sense of national identity, their relationships with others, aspects of difference and diversity, and perspectives on social justice and equity. In their description of Australia and Australians, these children did not dwell on the symbols and stereotypes that are readily available. Some discussion centered around language (the nasal drawl used by Jake), and Ros and Pete mentioned clothing (singlets and thongs). However, these stereotypes did not prevail.

There was strong support for diversity among families and peers, with many children accepting and supporting their own dual identification as well as that of others. Discussion moved away from a focus on physical characteristics and toward a greater sense of how people felt as important in determining nationality. Such views support the view that "Australia is frequently extolled as a society that recognizes, or even encourages, diversity.... Diversity is held to be a national strength" (Civics Expert Group, 1994, p. 4). One of the challenges posed by the Civics Expert Group was to move beyond the accommodation of diversity and "grasp the decision-making processes whereby differences are negotiated and resolved" (1994, p. 4). This is the aim of several civics and citizenship programs that explore children's rights and responsibilities (Department of Education, Training and Employment, South Australia, 1998).

One stereotype that was revealed related to aboriginal people. Seven children were adamant that people could be Australian only if they had light skin; others used their own skin color and that of their families to challenge this perception; and still others stated unequivocally that aborigines were Australian. Clearly, young children are aware of racial differences (Adler, 2001). Previous studies have noted children's attitudes towards, and reactions to, skin color (Averhart & Bigler, 1997), and the ways in which children create groups that include or exclude peers on the basis of variables such as skin color and social class (Bigler, Jones, & Lobliner, 1997). Consistent evidence indicates that young children are aware of not only differences among people, but also a range of meanings that are attributed to those differences (Glover, 1995). In this study, some children had constructed understandings of aboriginality and indigenous Australians, seemingly on the basis of a "black" and "white" binary. Others were less prepared to accept this, commenting on attributes such as their own skin color, or that of family members, to proclaim that people of differing skin colors could indeed be Australian. MacNaughton and Davis (2001) have reported similar results with younger children.

These findings suggest that young children are, as Ramsey (1995, p. 20) reports, "grappling with the contradictions of our society. On the one hand, they are learning to value equality and justice; on the other hand, they are beginning to accept racist ideologies and the unequal distribution of resources." The development and implementation of curricula that challenge such ideologies would seem to be well-placed in the early childhood years, when children are constructing understandings of their own identity and the identity of others, as well as notions of citizenship, justice, and equity.

As in the study by Gill and Howard (1999), children in this study applied rules about how people became Australian, with the consensus that being born in Australia was the surest way to achieve this outcome. While living in Australia was considered important, they recognized that the country of birth had a lasting impact. This line of thought was highlighted by discussions of being half Australian, if one was born in another country and then moved to Australia, preferably when young, or by a focus on the background of parents who were born in countries other than Australia. There was no apparent problem attached to having a dual nationality. Rather, the children discussed such a situation with considerable interest.

Children did make comparisons between Australia and other countries. Language was the source of much comparison, with a general agreement that to be Australian one needed to speak Australian. However, it is interesting to note that when asked by the interviewer if someone could be Australian and not speak Australian/English, no one openly rejected the idea. For example, Reuben stated that "you can talk a different language if you are in Australia if you want to." A strong feeling prevailed among the children that once you had been born in Australia, you were and remained Australian. It was possible to move to another country and learn another language, but most children were adamant that you would remain Australian.


The most striking conclusion from this study is that these young children have a strong awareness of their own identity, whether it be Australian, Lebanese, Italian, or some combination thereof. This is in keeping with current theoretical perspectives that, despite persistent media images, there is no one true Australian national identity (Gill & Howard, 1999). While identity is important, it does not seem to have a predominant role in the lives of these children, a sentiment that is summed up by Rachel's view that "it can be important if you want it to be." Neil's comment that "there's something special about all countries" reflects an expectation and acceptance of diverse identities, a view that may well be prompted by his presence in a strong and supportive multicultural school community. It seems clear that the children's communities influence their sense of identity and their ability to consider the identities of others. Even in this context, however, the children did make comments about physical appearance and skin color that suggested a focus on "us" and "them." Part of the challenge of education for democracy through civics and citizenship programs is to ensure that the processes of government are seen to be open to all, rather than available to some and not to others.

One view of promoting citizenship among children recognizes children's ideas of national identity and then progresses to encompass the concept of "multiple citizenships" (Kennedy, 1995) in which, for example, being an Australian does not automatically entail severing other ties or exclude the possibility of being a global citizen. Recent world events challenge such a view, as a renewed focus on Australian nationalism results from terrorist attacks close to Australia and Australian involvement in military actions across the world. There has been increased pressure to demonstrate "Australianness" and renounce connections with other nations, despite the view that "Australian citizenship should not require suppression of cultural heritage or identity" (Civics Expert Group, 1994, p. 23).

One aim of citizenship education is for children to connect the rights and responsibilities of citizenship with an awareness of civic processes, and to apply this understanding to their everyday lives and interactions. To shape a social and just society, children need to become well-informed citizens, capable of thinking critically about their place in society and the ways that they can effect change. This process can start with discussions of national identity and belonging.


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Averhart, C.J., & Bigler, R.S. (1997). Shades of meaning: Skin tone, racial attitudes, and constructive memory in African American children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 67, 363-388.

Bigler, R. S., Jones, L. C., & Lobliner, D. B. (1997). Social categorization and the formation of intergroup attitudes in children. Child Development, 68(3), 530-543.

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Kennedy, K.J. (1995). Conflicting conceptions of citizenship and their relevance for the school curriculum. In M. Print (Ed.), Civics and citizenship education: Issues from practice and research (pp. 13-18). Belconnen, ACT: Australian Curriculum Studies Association.

MacNaughton, G., & Davis, K. (2001). Beyond "othering": Rethinking approaches to teaching young Anglo-Australian children about indigenous Australians. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 2(1), 83-93.

Mayall, B. (2000). Conversations with children: Working with generational issues. In P. Christensen & A. James (Eds.), Research with children (pp. 120-135). London: Falmer.

Ramsey, P. (1995). Growing up with the contradictions of race and class. Young Children, 50(6), 18-22.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sue Dockett and Mella Cusack are Professors, School of Education and Early Childhood Studies, University of Western Sydney, Sydney, Australia,
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Title Annotation:aims of cititizenship and civics education; research study of Australian children and their sense of national identity
Author:Cusack, Mella
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 15, 2003
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