The Myth of the “Child’s Universe”

Recently I read a blog post by Alex over at NYRA that alluded to the necessity of integrating youth into the “adult world”. This leads me to address the myth of a “child’s universe” versus a separate “adult world”, primarily because I don’t believe that myth is okay to perpetuate, specifically by a leader in a self-defined movement supporting young people.

The following concerns stem from the notion that there are no “youth problems” as such; rather there are only community problems. By relegating responsibility for community-wide issues to youth, we only serve to segregate adults from young people, while at the same time relieving adults of the responsibility of responding appropriately. By assigning particular versions of responsibility to varying groups according to the arbitrary measure of age, many groups actually perpetuate the monster they ascribe to be fighting. This is especially true when particular subsets of that age population are educationally, socially, civically, and economically disenfranchised from generating adequate and appropriate responses.

In society this takes two forms. The first is illustrated by the television shows and advertisements you have seen that paint an idyllic and overly simplistic picture of children frolicking in the grass with toy balls and wagons that are conveniently sold at the local big box store; or perpetuate the image of violence-prone, video-game numbed teen thugs waiting to accost sweet, innocent families who lack a car alarm or mace?

On the other hand, the blatant reality of a persistently stereotypical war against youth has relinquished more than 80 years of some forms of social advances that may benefit youth, including education, health care and other social programs. Youth activists, media-makers, and advocates), as well as social critics (Henry Giroux, Margaret Mead, and Mike Males) and other adult allies have illustrated this reality over and over again. Their work consistently proves that too many news reports, academic articles, books, television shows, and movies are skewed to show demonized, ephibiphobic dramatizations of young people living in cities, using technology, and becoming more precocious everyday.

People who argue against “youth discrimination” and for “youth rights” perpetually damn their own cause, especially when they ascribe to the myth of the “child’s universe”. Their active ignorance of the multitude of realities that young people face throughout society endangers their own efforts. To remind those who don’t leave the DC beltway often, what reality boils down to is this: low-income rural white youth face a different reality than middle-class suburban Asian American youth, as do upper-class African American youth, Hispanic young people in juvenile detention, and Native American youth living with extended family in urban areas after being forcefully disconnected from their traditional homes.

Each of these young people’s realities are vastly different; by saying that the essence of their experience is the same, many people who purport to be “fighting for youth” are actually working against them. That is because the “essence” is not the same, and any attempt to make it such trivializes and undermines the realities which different youth face. Essentialization supposedly makes it okay for Americans to hate all Arabs, because they are “essentially” the same; identical to citywide curfews which make it okay to discriminate against young people out after hours, because they are “essentially” do the same things. In the same respect, seeking to lower the voting age, drinking age, and driving age for all youth is okay for a “youth rights” organization to do, because… you guessed it, all youth are “essentially” the same.

Which leads back to the myth of the “child’s universe” and the “adult world”. By directing readers toward the necessity of engaging youth in the “adult world”, Alex, the executive director of the nation’s largest pro-youth rights organization, exposes his own adherence to a myth that he claims to work against. Consequently, his organization appears to be fighting a bogus fight, because its not actually about all youth’s rights; instead, its about some youth’s rights.

Let’s get honest about who is fighting, and what is being fought for. After bringing those young people to the table let’s create a real “youth rights movement” which addresses the needs, interests, and aspirations of more than just a privileged few who “get it”. Then the people and groups involved can conjoin with the larger movement for social justice, because instead of essentializing our constiuents and perpetuating the myth of the “child’s universe”, we can represent the broad range of interests and abilities that young people already belong to- if we can only see that far ahead.

One comment

  1. I have been doing research into the ageism debate and found a total lack of acknowledgement of this issue in the literature. In fact, i’ve found very little self-analysis within the youth liberation movement as a whole. But this article is a breath of fresh air and important critical thinking. bravo!

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