Week 2: What is Childhood? A snowday post


By Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940, photographer. {Public domain} Wikimedia

Some of you might have heard of the new Disney show Newsies. What is interesting for us to consider and discuss is the historic event that the musical is based one, the strike that newsboys promoted in 1899, how they unionized and rebelled against media tycoons of the time, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Those were children who had to work, became political, and fought for their labour rights: a very different image from the idea of childhood that we tend to have nowadays. Hopefully after last week’s exercise, different constructions and experiences of childhood have become more relevant to your thinking about what a child is.

The questions that we tackle today in class are not easy and researchers still discuss and unpack these two concepts. For example, Ariès’s Centuries of Childhood (1960)  is considered a foundational work in the field of children’s history, although not the first one (George Henry Payne’s The Childhood in Human Progress (1916)). However, Ariès’ work is still both recommended and criticized nowadays, why? He pointed out that childhood was a concept that emerged after the middle ages, that period in someone’s life was less treasured, was not recognized or valued as a distinct phase of human existence. So, the difference between the experiences, the lives of adults and children were less distinct. Let’s not travel back to the 17th or 18th century, but just to the example I used to introduce this post. What is the different between an adult and a child when children do work, are political/politicized beings, and, for example, organize themselves to improve their livelihood? This example just points at the idea that childhood is a concept that depends very much on context: historical, geographical, political.
This discussion and a larger explorations of these questions is the topic of entire courses in disciplines such as Education, Literature, Sociology, or Childhood Studies. In this course, we will focus on it for two classes, but it will emerge on all out discussion. Because the materials we select for our libraries speak of and reflect how we (and those of the communities we serve) understand and construct children and childhood.
If you want to explore a resources that expands on some of the points here and connects them with the study of children’s literature, you can go here: Representing Childhood, a well-research project from the University of Pittsburgh that explores “the various ways in which people have imagined childhood over the centuries.” And to introduce youth in this discussion, see this enlighten discussion from Australian youth youtuber thisisnotHolly.

Some of you wrote on your posts about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I shared the text written in child friendly language because these rights are meant to be shared and discussed with children and teens. Some of you even expressed concern because the USA is the only country who has not ratified the convention. Why exactly? To be ratified, the Convention mainly needs to be supported by 2/3 of the Senate and the President. This has not yet happened because of an accumulation of different reasons, mainly connected to power and education: some groups see this text as potentially interfering with USA sovereignty; some parenting groups think it will mean that children could choose their own religion, would have a legally enforceable right to leisure, that will enforce certain expending in children’s welfare etc… You can check a fairly balanced discussion of this issue in this page from Amnesty International.

How would the Convention influence the status and lives of children in the USA? Well, a result of the lack of ratification is that these rights have not been systematically implemented. Although the only tool that the Convention has is periodic reporting for comparison and measure developments. What that would look like? These are some basic target points that are discussed  at length in the comparative reading for this week:

  • Poverty: USA 30th out of 34 OECD countries for child poverty (2010). Around 20% of children in the United States live in poverty (OECD average 13.3%)
  • Maternal Leave: USA only high-income country not to grant paid maternity leave, paternity leave?
  • Criminal Justice: USA sentences offenders under the age of 18 to life in prison without parole.

Beyond these overall points, some of you also highlighted the importance of article 17:

You have the right to get information that is important to your well-being, from radio, newspaper, books, computers and other sources. Adults should make sure that the information you are getting is not harmful, and help you find and understand the information you need.

Two texts, by Sacino and Koren, try to comment and explain further the implications of these article. Theoretically its spirit is “less about removing and more about the obligation of adults to create a good cultural climate, with good books, good libraries and good librarians” (Sacino 2012, p.68). This interpretation links to your third reading, the interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights: Access to Library Resources and Services for Minors.

The second pair of readings introduce Growing Up NYC,a program that has at its core “introduce parents and caregivers to the many wonderful and valuable City services available to all New Yorkers” as well as collect data “to help City agencies make strategic, evidence-based investments in programs that promote health, development, and safety for children.” Interestingly, the press release i shared with you as a complementary readings for the program portal mentions teachers and healthcare givers, should it mention librarians too?

I have decided not to share the voluntary tasks, try to enjoy or stay safe in this snowday. However, I do not want to leave you without a thought for you to ponder about: Do children in the USA have the right to an education, healthcare and protection? Is this right protected by whom? And how?