In another page from my journal I explored more about the relationship of children to society. Above is a snapshot of the graphic I made. Thinking about a workshop activity I do where I have people write the attributes of themselves inside a body shape representing themselves, I wrote the characteristics much of society inadvertently or intentionally ascribes to children and youth.
The idea of seeing children as incomplete or humans-in-the-making is not new in Western society. Instead, according to much of the history of childhood that exists, it was originally formulated by the aristocrats in pre-Victorian England in the 1500s and 1600s. This ruling class saw children as feeble and incapable of contributing to society, and to compensate they literally dressed their children up as adults and forced them to behave as they believed adults needed to behave. This is where our present-day society’s system of manners and “dressing up” comes from. Its also where much of our sense of how children should behave in public has its roots. Much of today’s treatment of children is sourced from this perspective.
That’s why kids today are seen as humans doing rather than human beings; its not enough for children to simply exist. This perception drives the understanding of childhood as a period of transition instead of a position in society. Different from adults who occupy roles as parents, workers, voters, taxpayers, church members, neighbors, drivers, drinkers, athletes, professionals, and so forth, children occupy two primary roles, and two only: the role of Child and the role of Student.
In their roles as students, children and youth are seen as uneducated and unfinished. They are largely treated as untamed creatures in need of teaching, people who are somehow less-than-human and undeserving of the respect allocated to other humans. They are treated as unknowledgable and uncultured, underdeveloped and manipulable by adults. Children and youth are seen as feral, unreliable, and incapable of doing for themselves what adults should do for them. From this position, adults are allowed to make decisions for young people without their consent, involvement, or input.
Ultimately, the Western system of childhood is the result of both passive and active decision-making by adults throughout society. This system is perpetuated every day in every way any adult anywhere interacts with any child or youth. The outcomes of this behavior are myriad, and the systems that have been created to perpetuate it are as complex as any imaginable.
Youth engagement matters because it actively challenges many of these assumptions. The work of The Freechild Project over the last decade has been to unfold these assumptions and behaviors with young people and adults across the US and around the world. This has led to the creation of dozens of tools and several publications. The work is far from done, and we’re just at the outside of revealing how the roles of young people are transforming throughout society.
CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic across the US and Canada. Contact Adam to learn about the possibilities by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (360) 489-9680.