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Rethinking Childhood


reviewed by Patricia Cantor - 2005

coverTitle: Rethinking Childhood
Author(s): Peter B. Pufall and Richard P. Unsworth (Editors)
Publisher: Rutgers University Press, Piscataway
ISBN: 0813533651, Pages: 292, Year: 2004
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Rethinking Childhood is a collection of fourteen essays about the study of childhood, one of the first in a series of publications on childhood studies to be published under the auspices ofRutgers University 's Center for Children and Childhood Studies. Although the twenty authors whose work is included here represent a range of disciplines, the collection is unusually cohesive. As is unfortunately not the case in many collections, these essays are of uniformly high quality. They reflect a conscious intent on the part of the editors and contributors to maintain a strong focus and utilize a common vocabulary. It is clear that this collection is the product of thoughtful collaboration.


The process by which Rethinking Childhood came to be is described in detail in the book's Preface. It grew out of a year-long project on "Exploring Ecologies of Children" at the Kahn Institute for Liberal Studies at Smith. Some of the scholars involved in that interdisciplinary project recruited other scholars for a planning group to develop a publication. In their discussions, a shared interest in re-thinking childhood, with a focus on children's voice and agency, became apparent, and these became the themes of the book. After drafting their chapters and circulating these drafts with their fellow authors, the book's contributors came together for a writers' conference, at which they further reviewed and critiqued each others' work. 


Each individual essay, as well as the book as a whole, shows the benefits of this process. The contributors tend to avoid the jargon of their individual fields, making each essay accessible to a range of readers. As the editors note, the authors were committed to "transparent language," fully aware that this would enable them "to share as widely as possible a body of inquiry about and observations of children that challenges conventional assumptions" (p. x). The exchange of ideas and insights that occurred during the writers' conference is also apparent in the authors' familiarity with each others' contributions. Throughout the book, individual authors often refer the reader to other chapters or sections of the book that support or elucidate the point the author is making. This contributes to a sense of common purpose and commitment to both the topic and the reader. 


The editors' Introduction sets the tone for the essays that follow by carefully describing the purpose and methodology of this interdisciplinary effort and clearly defining the terms used throughout the book. Editors Pufall and Unsworth briefly discuss the primary ways in which Western societies have viewed children—as either embodiments of a Rousseauistic romantic ideal of innocence or in the Aristotelian view, as not-yet-fully realized humans, worthy of notice because of their potential to become fully human. These views have prevailed until very recently, but as the editors point out, the time has come to re-think childhood: "Present research leads us, time and again, to see children differently than we have in the recent past: as fully human beings, quite apart from any measure we might use to determine their progress toward maturity. Seeing children as fully human means that we see their full humanity in the here and now, not only in a near or distant future" (p. 3). The contributors to this volume clearly believe that an interdisciplinary approach to the study of children and childhood is more likely to yield new and useful insights.


The Introduction also explains the meaning of voice and agency, the two main themes of the book. Voice is defined as "that cluster of intentions, hopes, grievances, and expectations that children guard as their own" (p. 8). Agency refers to "the fact that children are much more self-determining actors than we generally think. They measure issues against their own interests and values, they make up their own minds, they take action as a function of their own wills—that is, if the more powerful class, the adults, allows them to do so" (p. 9). 


The complementary concepts of voice and agency are explored throughout the book from a number of different perspectives. The essays are grouped into five sections. Part I, "Children's Voice and Agency," contains four chapters that go deeper into some of the issues and questions associated with the field of childhood studies in general and with the concepts of voice and agency in particular. Allison James's essay, "Understanding Children from an Interdisciplinary Perspective: Problems and Potentials," serves in a way as a second introduction to the book. James describes the development of childhood studies as an interdisciplinary field and introduces some of its key concepts. She writes thoughtfully about the complexities of defining childhood and the implications and problems of an age-based concept of childhood. James asserts that "to see children as social actors is core to childhood studies" (p. 36), a claim that is further refined and explored by the other contributors to this volume.


In the next two chapters, "Children as Philosophers" and "Children as Theologians," Gareth B. Matthews and Eileen W. Lindner provide compelling examples of children acting in roles not traditionally granted to them. Matthews and Lindner seek to refute the commonly held notion that children are not capable of thinking philosophically or spiritually, and urge us to acknowledge and encourage children's capacity to demonstrate voice and agency in these areas. In the final chapter in Part I, "Action, Voice, and Identity in Children's Lives," Jack A. Meacham looks at four different metaphors that frame the ways in which we regard children's lives—essence, organism, machine, and historical context—and at how each metaphor influences our understanding of children's action and voice. These metaphors are also linked to four different perspectives on identity. Meacham encourages us to examine these metaphors and their implications in an effort to be more precise about what we mean by terms such as voice and agency. 


The essays of Part II share the common theme of "Voice and Agency in Education." Although the term "education" is not defined here, two of the essays focus on school settings and the third on an international online forum. Susan Etheredge's intriguingly titled essay, "Do You Know You Have Worms on Your Pearls?" describes a particular second-grade in which a gifted teacher encourages and responds to each child's voice. Etheredge paints an engaging picture of an active, committed, classroom learning community. In the next essay, "Cultural Integrity and Schooling Outcomes of African-American Children from Low-Income Backgrounds," A. Wade Boykin and Brenda A. Allen address the question, "How can schools better serve children from diverse backgrounds to enhance educational outcomes so that diversity becomes an asset rather than a liability?" (p. 104). They examine the concept of cultural integrity and urge schools to build on the knowledge, skills, habits, values, and experiences that children bring with them in order to recognize and cultivate each child's potential.


As in the previous essay by Etheredge, Boykin and Allen appear to be calling for schools and teachers to apply the contextualist metaphor described in Meacham's essay, by focusing on children as interpreters of experience and constructors of knowledge. Justine Cassell's essay, "We Have These Rules Inside," describes the ways in which children participating in an international online forum insisted upon their voices being heard, sometimes to the discomfiture of the adult organizers. These children recognize the power and significance of their own experiences. Cassell quotes one child as saying, "What we tried to do is to tell people stories and through these stories make them listen" (p. 132). This essay also explores the potential of the Internet for empowering children.


The common theme for Part III is "Voice and Agency Within Families." Enola G. Aird's essay on "Advertising and Marketing to Children in the United States" argues forcefully that current advertising and marketing practices directed at children are negatively affecting the development of children's voice and agency and their ability to "help shape their world and to articulate their hopes, wishes, and fulfillments" (p. 142). Aird includes recommendations for parents and other adults who wish to end or reduce the imposition of advertising upon children, so as to give them more room to "develop a sense of themselves free of the ever-encroaching messages of marketing" (p. 151). In "Children's Lives in and out of Poverty," Karen A. Gray briefly reviews the research on children's experiences of poverty, then looks more closely at what poverty means for individual children. After sharing children's own stories of what it feels like to be poor, she ends with a plea for researchers to look more closely at the ways that children experience poverty and for policymakers to consider children's experiences and voices in developing policies aimed at ending poverty. Similarly, in "Children of Divorce," Jan Pryor and Robert E. Emery urge parents and other adults to give more consideration to children's points of view when making the decision to separate or divorce. The authors point out that, while children often have a great deal of say in the everyday lives of their families, their opinions are seldom encouraged or listened to when it comes to major changes such as separation and divorce. They caution that children's desire to be heard should not be interpreted as a desire to make decisions for the family: "Acknowledging that children do have feelings and views about family change, enabling their voices to be heard, does not amount to conferring decision-making powers and responsibilities on them" (p. 171). Providing opportunities for children to exercise voice and agency when families undergo major changes, the authors claim, will "both diminish their vulnerability and enhance their resilience" (p. 186).


The two essays of Part IV, "Voice and Agency in Neighborhoods and Sports," move beyond the family and the school to the wider world children inhabit. In "Negotiating the Dance: Social Capital from the Perspective of Neighborhood Children and Adults," James C. Spilsbury and Jill E. Korbin describe their research on the responses of adults and children from the same neighborhood to a help-offering/help-seeking situation. Although we often take for granted that adults offer and provide help, and children need and seek it, the responses in Spilsbury and Korbin's study suggest that both children and adults have reservations about giving and seeking help, and that their responses are far from automatic. Spilsbury and Korbin propose that efforts to build and improve community life should include children among the stakeholders. 


Rhonda Singer's essay, "Are We Having Fun Yet?" examines children's experiences and perceptions of youth sports, and compares their reasons for participating in sports to the reasons given by adults. While adults "talk about how sports will teach our children self-discipline and the value of hard work, teamwork [and] competition," (p. 223), children are seldom motivated by these goals. The best way to keep children involved in sports, Singer claims, may be by "closing the gap between adult and kids' conceptions of fun" (p. 223). 


Part V, "Voice and Agency as Legal Rights," includes two essays that examine how national and international law influence children's rights and identity. In "Re-Visioning Rights for Children," Barbara Bennett Woodhouse argues forcefully that traditional concepts of rights have not served children well and must be re-shaped in order to bring about justice for children. She proposes two new categories of rights especially for children: needs-based rights, such as rights to "nurture, education, food, medical care, shelter, and other goods without which children cannot survive" (p. 233); and dignity-based rights, those which acknowledge children as "individual persons with the same claim to dignity as autonomous adults" (p. 234). Woodhouse proposes that the five unifying principles that have guided the development of human rights generally— equality, individualism, empowerment, protection, and privacy —should also guide the development of rights for children (p. 235). 


Woodhouse acknowledges that her theory of children's rights draws from the principles embodied in the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which has been ratified by every other nation except theUnited States . In "Recognizing the Roots: Children's Identity Rights," Alice Hearst looks more closely at the implications of Article 8 of the CRC, which claims that every child has the right "to preserve his or her identity." Her essay explores multiple aspects of identity—familial, cultural, biological, political—and the impact of these upon children's daily lives and how they create their own identity. Hearst asserts that "recognizing some form of identity rights for children, although not unproblematic, could fundamentally change the way children are imagined in the law because such rights provide a mechanism for acknowledging children as at least partial authors of their own lives" (p. 247). 


The book's final section, by Raymond A. Ducharme, provides a comprehensive list of Internet resources for those seeking further information related to the ideas and themes presented in the book. The list is well-organized, and Ducharme provides some helpful advice about effective searching techniques.


This thoughtful and thought-provoking collection is an important addition to the field of childhood studies. It makes a strong case for listening to and considering children's voices and for attaining a better understanding of children by viewing childhood from multiple perspectives.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 2, 2005, p. 272-277
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11385, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 10:49:50 PM

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