Imagine being 3 or 4 years old and invited to adult dances, singing and dancing with them through the night. When you’re 4 you dance in adult ballets – and even though you’re not particularly graceful or talented, you are still welcomed and applauded for your performances.
At 5 years old you practice archery everyday, playing cards and charades with your adult uncles and aunts, and family friends who are adults, too. The adults around you love fairies and fairy stories, and you do to, often listening to storytellers share tales until late at night. In crazy, large group games with those same adults, and others, you run crazy playing hide-and-seek, blindman’s bluff, and other games.
Sure, you do stuff that only kids do, like play with dolls and race your toys around the place. And you get disciplined, too, for refusing to eat dinner. But generally adults let you participate in all the adult activities going on around you – not as an oddity or a plaything, but as a person.
Around the age of 7 you are encouraged to give up your toys and act more mature. You learn to gamble, ride horses, and hunt… and by 8 you become the king of France. This was the life of Louis the 13th, who took full control over his country when he was 15.
We don’t often hear the stories of historical figures whose lives seem so different than ours. But I think there are lessons buried inside these tales, lessons that we can and should learn from. Let’s consider some of the points in Louis’ story: He was allowed to be a child when he was a child. He was encouraged to take responsibility as he grew up – albeit, at the age of 8, but that works for some people. He fully interacted with adults as a peer, and not just as a puppet or puppy. He was afforded opportunities for self-realization within his social circles. Not to say it was all roses, or anything near that, but again, there are lessons in there.
I’m going to be writing about the history of children and youth for a little while, so bear with me. This Wednesday I’m going to beautiful Wenatchee, Washington, to work with a group of teachers, and I’m sure I’ll have something to say about that, too. But in the meantime, if you’re interested, I’m working from the following books about the history of young people:
- Childhood in America by Paula Fass and Mary Ann Mason. Explores popular and not-so-popular conceptions of how and why young people are treated the ways they are. This book summarizes what the ideas have been and examines where we’re headed.
- The Case Against Adolescence by Robert Epstein. A scientific study of how the notion of adolescence damns youth, challenging conceptions about the limitations and inabilities of young people by showing a different reality.
- Teenagers: An American history by Grace Palladino. This is a great history that focuses on how marketers created the concept of “youth” to sell crap to young people and adults.
- Consumed: How markets corrupt children, infantalize adults and swallow citizens whole by Benjamin Barber. An intense book that says we’re still getting sold.
- Childhood by Chris Jenks. An academic treatise that pulls together diverse thought to forward a comprehensive notion of what the phenomenon of childhood means today.
- Generations: The history of America’s future, 1584 to 2069 by William Strauss and Neil Howe. This book shows the long view of how children and youth have been treated, and why they are seen the ways they have been.
- The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager by Thomas Hine. Another thorough examination of how young people got to where they are in our society, and why our society sees them as so valuable to everything around us.
As you can see, I’m concerned about two things here: What the collective histories of children and youth are, and why those histories have come to be what they are. Unfortunately they are very American-centric – but its a start. In my work with Freechild and SoundOut over the last 8 years I have made a lot of assumptions about the inherent goodness and “evil”ness of society’s treatment of children and youth; now I want to break those myths in my mind, because they aren’t true. Come on – let’s see what’s out there!