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Children’s Benefit or Burden? Reflections from Laura Tisdall, University of Oxford

On 3rd September 2015, we held a workshop about the use of children to represent the future at King’s College London. Here, Laura Tisdall gives her thoughts on the day in a guest post.

By Laura Tisdall, Stipendiary Lecturer, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford

Are children human ‘beings’ or human ‘becomings’? This issue is frequently discussed in sociological literature on childhood, usually in order to criticise the ‘deficit model’ of human ‘becomings’ (1). These terms are getting at a deceptively simple dichotomy that becomes a bigger problem the more you think about it: should children be viewed and treated primarily as future adults (‘becomings’), or is it more beneficial to value childhood in the present (‘beings’)? Those who support the latter model argue, roughly, that it is not enough to define children by what they cannot do in comparison with adults. It’s better to think about the positive contributions that children and adolescents can make in families, communities and societies. This is obviously sensible. To an extent, it reflects the views of many (although not all) mid twentieth-century British child-centred educationalists, who argued that childhood must not be seen simply as a preparation for adulthood. For example, JE Sadler and AN Gillett wrote in a popular teaching guide of 1962 that ‘The child may be compared with adults, but this may lead to wrong conclusions, since adults frequently make the mistake of assuming that childhood is necessarily unsatisfactory or incomplete, a kind of illness to be cured by schools… Nowadays more people than formerly regard childhood as good in itself.’ (2) Nevertheless, my own work on child-centred education in British schools, which I’ll talk about a little more in a bit, has suggested that an exclusive focus on childhood as ‘complete in itself’ could be problematic as well.

The Children’s Benefit or Burden? workshop, which emerged from the AHRC-funded Agents of Future Promise project, provided a lot of food for thought on how precisely these theoretical issues can contribute to analyses of childhood in the past. The workshop ostensibly focused on how children are used as symbols of the future, both historically and in the here and now, with some fascinating presentations from Matt Ruuska (War Child) and Kerry Smith (Plan International UK) on how charities can respectfully use images of children to advertise their work. However, the tension between children as ‘beings’ and ‘becomings’ was present in many of the papers. Dr Lindsey Dodd’s fascinating paper on children in Vichy France, which you can get a taste of in her blog post here, emphasised how children were used by the regime as both passive symbols of the future – for example, in discussions about increasing the birth rate – but also as active intermediaries, often encouraged to re-educate their own parents. For example, she described how children under 14 were encouraged to earn two francs to contribute to the Vichy government, and how this was seen as a way of influencing the adults around them. This treated children as active ‘beings’, but also manipulated their developing consciousnesses.


Jess Day’s fantastic presentation on the Let Toys be Toys campaign, which challenges gender stereotypes in the marketing of toys, also indirectly raised issues about solely valuing childhood as a stage in itself. She questioned why children are encouraged by gendered toys such as male-coded doctors’ kits to occupy a pink-and-blue fantasy. While children may frequently encounter female doctors in reality, these toys often have a more powerful hold over their imaginations, stranding them in a separate childhood world rather than connecting them to the reality of adult occupations. We often think that childhood needs to be happy, protected and safe, but this evidence indicates that by making childhood playtime so at odds with reality, we’re actually damaging children by restricting their plans for the future. If you only think about what children need in the present, you may be distorting their opportunities in adulthood.

Mid-century child-centred educational programmes based along gender and class lines were often justified by the claim that they appealed to children’s natural ‘interests’, and children learn best when their present interests are engaged, rather than by focusing on what will be good for them when they are adults. For example, writing on secondary modern schools in 1958, the prominent educationalist HC Dent commented that the ‘interest in learning’ of a large proportion of these 11+ ‘failures’ ‘can only be evoked and retained when they see before them immediately obvious, readily attainable, and personally relevant goals’.(3). Like much child-centred pedagogy, he therefore agreed with the traditional recommendation that boys do woodwork or metalwork, and girls cookery, but used newer psychological language to justify this divide. Despite the references to the general characteristics of childhood and adolescence, Dent explicitly argued near the end of his text that these recommendations were directed at the secondary modern intake because ‘at some point in the intelligence scale the capacity for systematic and progressive learning becomes so slight as to be almost negligible’.(4) In other words, these working-class pupils would never possess the capacity for logical, theoretical thought that their middle-class, grammar/public school equivalents would eventually gain, and so had to learn through concrete experience. In psychological terms, they would never really leave their early adolescence and participate in a fully adult future. Ironically, therefore, focusing on childhood as ‘good in itself’ could lead to a narrowly vocational curriculum that actually contradicted its central tenet by focusing on the presumed adult roles of these pupils. It also emphasised that these children were incomplete in comparison with (middle-class, male) adults.

Obviously, we are all human ‘beings’ and human ‘becomings’. Adults look forward to a projected future in the same way as children do. It’s possible to value children for what they are now without forgetting that they have the right to plan for their own futures, and to participate as far as is possible in the adult world. One question asked by this workshop was whether or not representing children as images of the future is harmful to the children themselves, and how children engage with, and produce these images. This is a hugely important task, and I’m really looking forward to reading more of the work that emerges from this project.


(1) For example, see James et al, 1998; Qvortup, 1994; Lee, 2001.

(2) A.N. Gillett and J.E. Sadler, Training for Teaching (London, 1962), 85-6

(3) H.C. Dent, Secondary Modern Schools: an interim report (London, 1958), 171

(4) ibid., 197

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