On Childhood: Introduction
Henry Darger, “At Jennie Richee. Hard pressed and harassed by the storm” (details). The original work is in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.
“Children are beautiful because they possess something that we have all lost — the quality of innocence,” writes columnist Tim Lott in The Guardian. In his terms, children are the bearers of a “rarefied quality of ignorance,” an enviable lack of awareness that includes a failure to grasp “that death will come,” a fundamental ignorance about sex and sexuality, a belief in the “irrational,” and an enduring commitment to the “myth of the infinite power and goodness of parents.”
The contributors to this special focus section on childhood offer potent challenges to this all-too-common line of interpretation. In none of the articles that follow will you find analyses that treat the period between “infancy” and “adolescence” as a kind of pre-political period of formation. Nor will you find pat venerations of youthful “ignorance.”
Instead, you will encounter a range of contributions that invite us to see “childhood” and the lives of children as fundamentally political.
First, the articles that follow demonstrate that the very category of childhood is contested. Our interview with child studies researcher Hannah Dyer, for example, encourages us to think critically about how conventional interpretations of staged human development empty children of their complexity. In a world dominated by adult theories of early life, children are rarely treated as the progenitors of challenging ideas. Indeed, they are generally presented as subjects whose knowledge of the world is blissfully postponed, as The Guardian passage cited above attests. Dyer has no interest for this tidy reductionism. Instead, she is interested in the ways that actual children exceed conventional characterizations, particularly when we take their difficult questions and curiosities seriously.
Second, this collection of contributions demonstrates that children are political agents. This point is illustrated, in part, by the memories of early politicization that we collected from a number of prominent radicals. While the content of these accounts varies considerably, they are united by the interpretive sophistication that they evidence in youthful thinking. On a more abstract level, Toby Rollo’s article makes the case that children are the bearers of very political interests, capacities and demands, even if there almost always excluded from meaningful participation in prevailing forms of human governance. Against the tyranny of this adult-centrism, Rollo calls for the development of new forms of social organization that meaningfully embrace the “political equality” of children.
Third, the analyses that follow demonstrate that children’s lives are fundamentally shaped by politics. Indeed, as Judy Deutsch highlights — and all of our contributors acknowledge — neither the comforts of security and care, nor the burdens of poverty and violence, are distributed equally among the world’s children. Indeed, children are often the first to suffer from the radical inequities of contemporary social organization at home and abroad, as Deutsch shows in excruciating detail. More prosaically, Stefan Decosse’s article takes us into the brave new world of privatized minor sport, where we encounter the perverse nexus of accumulation and children’s recreation.
In short, the analyses included in this focus section encourage us to take seriously categories that are taken for granted. As the editors and assemblers of this collection, we hope it will stimulate critical debate about childhood and the lives of children.