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.

No Youth Problems

There is no such thing as a “child’s universe.” Instead, there’s a single universe* we all occupy together, all the time. (*Not talking about the multiverse!) There is no “adult world” that is singularly occupied by adults without youth, children, or elders. We all share a single world all the time; whether or not we acknowledge that is the problem.

That said, the following concerns stem from the concept that there are no “youth problems” as such; instead, 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. Assigning particular versions of responsibility to varying groups according to the arbitrary measure of age, many groups actually perpetuate the problems they proclaim 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:

  1. The Perfect Kid: The first form is the “perfect kid” who 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. This kid does nothing wrong, and the world is merely done to them, innocent victims of grown ups.
  2. The Demon Child: On the other hand, the second form is the “demon child” who is a blatant personification of the persistently stereotypical war against youth. This war has given society more than 80 years of some forms of social advances that may benefit youth, including education, health care and other social programs. However, this war against youth has also given us youth prisoners convicted as adults; stop-and-frisk; zero tolerance in schools; standardized testing; and other hatred towards youth. 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. 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.


No Separate Battles

There are no battles against youth that are separate from the rest of our society.

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”. When they see youth as separate from the world, they seem to choose ignorance of the multitude of realities that young people face throughout society, easily endanging their own efforts. Reality boils down to 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. But those realities aren’t separate from the children, adults or elders of their communities. We have to see youth as members of the society they live in; only in this way can we change our society. Seeing their problems as distinctly “youth problems” is disingenuous and ineffective at best; at worst, it causes more damage by further segregating youth from others who could benefit from joining their struggles.


Everyone’s Different

Every youth reality is vastly different, and 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.

The same goes with citywide curfews that make it okay to discriminate against young people out after hours, because they are “essentially” do the same things. This same logic informs the belief that seeks to lower the voting age, drinking age, and driving age for all youth, because it assumes all youth are essentially the same and need the same responses.


Still Not Different

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 a so-called “adult world,” people expose their own bias against youth by sticking to a myth that they claim to work against. As a result, these people appear to be fighting a bogus fight, because they’re not actually about all youth rights; instead, they’re about some youth rights.

I want us to 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 movement that addresses the needs, interests, and aspirations of more than just a privileged few who “get it.”

Then the people and their groups involved can get together for a larger movement for social justice, because instead of essentializing our constituents 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.


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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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