26 September 2008

What is Childhood Anyway?

Mickybo and Me, Wendy and Dorothy, Rousseau and Wesley

a slightly re-written version of a response I wrote this week to a series of readings regarding how we understand childhood.

In the 2004 film Mickybo and Me1 two children, trapped by the violence and corruption of the adult world beyond them, flee mid-1970s Belfast for a fling of adventure and delinquency across County Down in the southeast corner of Northern Ireland.

As in J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (Peter Pan), the return to the adult world proves to be a negative experience. In this case, disastrous for the “Peter” character (Mickybo), while for the “Wendy” character (JonJo, the “me”) it is, as expected, simply sad and disappointing.

These visions of childhood are, obviously, deeply at odds with the more familiar vision, represented by everything from The Wizard of Oz, to television programs like Rugrats, to Home Alone. Though all of these also present children out on their own having unforgettable adventures, there is no doubt that safety and happiness lie in the return of the children to their families.

Do adults train/save/create children or do adults corrupt children?

When I began my graduate program in education I firmly believed that, for most children in the United States, not going to school would be better for them than going to school, so I probably find myself firmly on Rousseau’s side in the 17th Century's “Natural Child” debate. That debate, which has truly continued right through today, pitted those like John Wesley - "break the will of your child," "bring his will into subjection to yours that it may be afterward subject to the will of God" - against Jean Jacques Rousseau who "captured the imagination of Europe with his validation of nature, which espoused the natural goodness of children and the corrupting effects of certains kinds of education."2

Reading the "histories of childhood," and I suppose viewing them as I probably view everything, through lenses which analyze power relationships, I find myself struck by the formalization of an adult structure which, at least over the past 400 years, has been committed to “saying anything” that will ensure both the powerlessness of all children and strict definition of children not comfortably willing to accept complete social reproduction as “evil.”

This is even true when society deals with the counter-archetype. Peter Pan Syndrome suggests social immaturity and dependence, despite Barrie’s Peter Pan character being exceedingly competent and functionally independent. The play Peter Pan is most commonly presented with a woman performing the lead role of a boy “clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that flow from trees," a role which might otherwise evoke significant power, including a pre-adolescent sexuality. Is the strength of this young male character diminished when that part is filled by Sandy Duncan or Cathy Rigby?

I am forced to ask, are children powerful? They must be, if, for example, they require the levels of discipline and punishment that are part of family life, school life, and religious life in so much of American society. Without strength and power the molding process would be easy, and seemingly far more universally successful.

But if children are powerful, why do they need such elaborate protections? Especially from their own actions? In Mickybo and Me, in Peter Pan, though the children put themselves into stunningly risky situations, they survive every one. They do not need magic (The Wizard of Oz), or accident (Rugrats), or the police (Home Alone) to provide the critical rescue. But a parent or a school embracing the Peter Pan myth would likely be accused of child neglect, at the least.

Are children born evil? The thrust of Oz and Home Alone is that children get into trouble, head off into these adventures, because they are problematic children in the first place. Misunderstood, yes, but problematic at the core. Dorothy is unable to reasonably control her dog (or her ambitions), then runs away from home. Kevin is a terror. Both are subjected to trials which teach them the error of their ways. These tales seem driven by the Christian orthodoxy of original sin, and are very different from both Peter Pan and Mickybo, where parental actions push the children to discover paths outside the prescribed norms. (The problem begins for Mickybo in the sectarian hatred of Northern Ireland, for Wendy, it begins with the father’s vanity, “He had his position in the city to consider. Nana also troubled him in another way. He had sometimes a feeling that she did not admire him.”)

But if children are not born evil, why is school seen as a conversion process? Why do children need so many rules, schedules, controls?

On the other side, if Peter Pan and Mickybo are right, if the adult world corrupts a somewhat perfect natural state, what does that imply for society, for us as parents, for us as educators?

Because if we argue that children are innocent and vulnerable, then would not schools look radically different? Would discipline and coercion really be the dominant themes? And if we argue that children are both powerful and evil, then we surely need to re-imagine our roles as liberal parents. But if we argue, as we often seem to, that children are innocent (please protect them from sexualized thoughts), vulnerable (do not let them out of our sight), evil (they will get away with anything if you allow it), and powerful (you have no idea how much trouble they can create), we are simply mimicking the absurd arguments of colonialists – which, of course, may have been spun from early concepts of childhood itself. That is, you make whatever argument you must, at this moment, to defend your control over another human.

That seems wrong to me, though I wouldn't suggest that I know of any obvious solution to all this.

- Ira Socol

1 which is based on Owen McCafferty’s play Mojo Mickybo http://www.backstage.com/bso/news_reviews/nyc/review_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003850925

2 Hendrick, Harry. (1997) Constructions and Reconstructions of British Childhood: An Interpretative Survey, 1800 to the Present. In James and Prout (eds), Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood. Falmer, New York and London. p. 36


Anonymous said...

While you were busily dissecting western pop culture for parenting power relationships, I couldn't help thinking about the Walt Disney of Japan: Hayao Miyazaki. His productions usually feature a female central character who is both powerful and good, and who always ends up saving the hides of everyone, good guys and villains alike. There is also often a reconciliation between the good guys and villains, a mediation made possible only by the power of the central character.

Start with 'Spirited Away' or 'My Neighbor Totoro.'

I think it's important that children learn a kind of 'soft power' that comes from empathy and cooperation, in addition to the 'hard power' of boundaries and consequence. But the question is: From whom?


vera said...

they have to learn it from the people who love them the most. if nobody loves them- then they learn whatever is strong enough to catch their attention at the moment. off topic: trying to get speech to text recognition in the schools here. the free sites are all blocked. i have to speak to the tech people. i asked for the dragon naturally speaking software that we got in the middle school from a federal grant to be used in my elementary school- i have a severely dyslexic 4th grader. i was told i can't use it for a school outside the grant. anyway, just today i found out my MAC has speech to text built in automatically:

"You don’t have to be a magician to make your Mac speak. In fact, the ability to speak text in email messages, Pages documents, PDFs, spreadsheets, and other text-based files is built in to every Mac. You turn it on in System Preferences, where you’ll find all the Text to Speech options made available to you in Mac OS X Leopard. You can read about them in the latest Pro Tip."

so that was cool. but my school uses like windows 98. have to see if those computers have it.

narrator said...

There's something great about these two comments, because htb is absolutely right, the balance is the learning and use of soft power, collaborative power, leveraged power. And a huge part of wielding soft power is knowledge.

Schools typically try to block change by claiming that change is incredibly difficult, but often it is not difficult at all, if people simply could think differently. Most of the computer-based solutions discussed elsewhere on this blog, for example, are free downloads or free web-based solutions, and most can run on old, used computers. Other "fixes" - allowing students to move between rooms by going outside, or allowing baseball caps, or allowing students to stand up in class, require nothing more than the adoption of "good manners" on the part of teachers and school administrators (that old, "do onto others" thing).

But soft power means you know that the route to simple solutions is there. So step one is always, let's get our students out of the "cone of silence" typically imposed by schools.

- Ira Socol

v said...

i would like the term 'soft power' more if the prc chinese gov't wasn't always throwing it around. the thing i like about my mac is i don't have to download anything. it's built into the system.