How Our Childhood Needs Freedom From Its Inherently ‘Adult’ Identity

Posted by Shreyosee Sen in Society, Staff Picks
February 23, 2017

In this article, I have attempted to explore the idea of ‘otherness’ that becomes an important organising principle of children’s social practices favouring a new agenda of analysis. I argue here that there are considerable differences between becoming an ‘adult’ and becoming a ‘child’. The paper relates the idea of ‘otherness’ to the idea of the representation of ‘childhood geographies’ in the wider social domain.

To begin with, the idea of ‘otherness’ of children might simply refer to the distinct ways in which the experiences or the ‘life-worlds’ of children seem to be different from ‘adult viewpoints’. Thus, we have famous notions like ‘do not behave like a child’ or ‘you are getting matured like an adult’. In re-establishing the notion of ‘otherness’, I seek to delve into the idea of conceptualising childhood as a distinct ‘social category’ that needs to be examined critically.

‘Identity’ and ‘difference’ seem to be major components that frame the context of an adult-child relationship. The domain of the adult serves as a reference point to analyse the categories in which the constituents of the phase of childhood are accounted for. I hereby state that the usage of the terms ‘other’ and ‘otherness’ carry two different meanings in the context of childhood studies.

Firstly, my argument revolves around the use of the word ‘other’ in terms of the notion of ‘alterity’ (which shows that you are different from a particular cultural orientation) to signify the distant gap between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. If the ‘self’ is considered to be the ‘adult’ (the dominant discourse through which the study of childhood is being assessed, not historicising childhood to understand its ‘independent’ social existence), then the ‘other’ refers to the category of childhood that is being informed by the discursive practices of the ‘self’ or the social identity of being a ‘adult’.

This is akin to Said’s use of the term ‘other’ in his work “Orientalism”. So in a way, it can be argued that the need for ‘otherness’ is indicative of the way the adult society always exerts control and ‘constructs’ the imagery of childhood in some way or the other. This bears impacts on how they are treated as individuals. This view advocates the idea that children should be measured and standardised through different scales populated by adults. This view of the ‘other’ throws light on the way childhood emerges as a ‘social construct’. I develop the idea of childhood as a ‘social construct’ to emphasise the point that childhood is not a ‘natural process’. It is the result of the perceptions of individuals or groups in society that determines when a child is a ‘child’ and when the child becomes an ‘adult’.

The question that resurfaces in this context is: what defines the category of ‘childhood’? What could be the different cultural and social parameters to understand the phase of ‘childhood’? It is worth lamenting that the definition of childhood can be well found in the following quote: “Childhood is the structural site that is occupied by ‘children’ as a collectivity. And it is within this collectivity and institutional space of childhood, as a member of the category children that any ‘individual’ child comes to exercise his or her unique agency.Philippe Aries first highlighted the socially constructed character of childhood, for the period till the Medieval Ages, where he asserted that children were seen as ‘miniature adults’ in the paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries that revealed that the children’s clothes and bodily aspects were same as that of the adults.

The second usage of the word ‘other’ is essentially an extension of the previous one that aims at thinking of children to dilute the hold of ‘adult’ constructions and thereby make space for ‘child-becoming’. This particular paradigm focuses on the autonomy of children as ‘beings’ that make or develop their own worlds irrespective of the ‘adult-ordered’ world. This stance might include children detesting ‘adult’ constructions, demarcating spaces in material and symbolic forms, and re-appropriating the social and cultural worlds to meet their own ends.

The independent existence of childhood also paves the way for the prevalence of ‘multiple childhoods’ that recognise ‘childhood lives’ which are heterogeneous and culturally embedded. ‘Childhood’ as a significant cultural category disseminates cultural codes and meanings to examine the ‘child standpoint’ and lends a voice to the voiceless group. So it can be argued at this point, that the notion of ‘otherness’ does not simply imply the world of children being informed by adults – it also addresses the way in which the category of ‘childhood’ is glorified and celebrated to focus on children as ‘significant beings’. They are actors, authors, authorities and agencies. There are differences within the various notions of ‘childhood’, but the differences act as ‘societal markers’ to differentiate the phases of ‘childhood’ and ‘adulthood’.

Children and Adults

The question that arises next is: what is the nature of these differences that are found in these two worlds and what sort of relation exists between the two? What exactly does the world of the ‘child’ contain – and similarly, what does the world of the ‘adult’ imply? To further extend the argument, what do we mean by ‘child-like’ games and what do we mean by ‘adult-like’ games? Or what do we understand by ‘child-like’ movies and ‘adult-like movies’?

In raising these questions, I am trying to unsettle the new paradigm of childhood studies. Let me substantiate my argument by citing examples of cinematic representations of childhood. Although films can be conceptualised as ‘adult-imaginative’ discourses, a closer look at films opens up spaces for developing insights into the experiences of children. In this case, I would emphasise on Nagesh Kukunoor’s movie, “Rockford”, and Amir Khan’s movie, “Taare Zamen Par”.

Centred in the context of an Indian boarding school, “Rockford” chronicles the growing years of a 10-year-old, as he learns to fend for himself in a boarding school. He forms deep bonds with two of his classmates and his gym instructor. Though the movie depicts the idea of ‘a trip down memory lane’, this movie primarily contains elements ranging from ‘early adolescent fears’ to a ‘sinful’ kiss. The movie captures the not-so-child-like aspects of a child by focusing on parameters like a child flipping through the pages of a pornography magazine, a child deceiving the institutional authority to go and kiss a girl, and the child resorting to smoking in order to socialise in a newly created environment – to name just a few.

On the other hand, “Taare Zameen Par” explores the life and imagination of an 8-year-old boy. Although he excels in art, his poor academic performance leads his parents to send him to a boarding school where he receives education from his teacher who helps him in coping up with the difficulties posed by the competitive nature of the education system. This movie portrays a child whose needs should be catered to, and shows the idea of development of a child who needs special care and protection. A theme of ‘preciousness’ is linked to the notion of childhood that must be looked into and restored in order to treat a child in a socially effective manner.

Now the question that I want to pose here is: which movie would fall under the category of movies that are designed for children? If the argument favours “Taare Zameen Par” as the movie that delves more into assessing childhood as a ‘protected’ category, and “Rockford” as a movie that openly debunks the ‘stereotypical conventional’ image of a child – then the issue that resurfaces here is the existence of certain cultural and social parameters to define what it means to be ‘child-like’. These parameters are contingent on the ‘cultural specificities’ that continue to influence ‘child-like behaviour’.

The question that finds prominence in this context is: do you call someone a ‘child’ when she is playing with a toy? Do you call someone a ‘child’ when she acts stubbornly? Do you call someone a ‘child’ when she is accompanied by her parents all the time to harbour a feeling of protection? These could be the possible ways of probing into the socially constructed manner in which an image of a ‘child’ is created.

Furthermore, a certain positive attitude of ‘difference’ has its own social underpinnings. ‘Difference’ can be regarded as the result of discursive social practices which results in a comprehensive approach that seems crucial to the dynamics of the study of childhood. Thomas and Hacking used the term ‘colonisation‘ to refer to the mechanisms of ‘adult interventions’ in the lives of children.

I am aware of the fact that this paper can also be treated as a part of the ‘adult discourses’ that inform the category of ‘childhood’. But my basic argument is that some aspects of children’s lives are different from those of the adults. Hence, there is a need to create spaces that would be central in understanding what it is to be a ‘child’, and to argue further, why there is a need to have terms like ‘childhood’ and ‘children’. These spaces cannot be subjected to the power of ‘colonisers’ or be easily known (research having its own limits), and there is a constant need to ask the question whether we should intrude into these ‘other’ lands.

Thus, the notion of ‘otherness’ of children ultimately points to what ‘children’ are. It should be pivotal in understanding ‘childhood’. Researches into children’s lives and the ‘adult knowledge’ of it should acknowledge the presence of spaces that are left, especially for children, as socially and ethically vital.


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