The Political Nature of Childhood

January 17, 2019

Tomorrow I will take a small group of children to meet Greta Thunberg and the others protesting outside the government building here in Stockholm, my daughter being one of those others. The teenagers are on a school-strike as a way of getting their opinion across to politicians about the climate situation and the need to address it seriously...

The 3-5 year olds that I will be taking are going to go there to find out why they are standing there and also to see that children do have the right to voice their opinion...

The children have seen images of Greta (now a worldwide known figure) standing and holding up signs... so the children have made their own signs..

I asked them about what was important to them... I asked them about the environment... and their answers were about plastic in the sea and in in fish, and straws up turtles noses and too many exhaust fumes...  I asked them about the environment... not about the problems... but it is the case that when we use the word environment now that this is the way the word is being interpreted... the problems of pollution...

I posted some photos of the children working on signs of their own (their idea) and there popped up a comment about someone feeling not comfortable with the children being political pawns...

 

 

 

Well neither am I...

But at the same time all children live in the same world as we do, they are governed and impacted by political decisions like we adults are... why should they not have a voce?

 

However, children are remarkable in mainstream political theory mainly by their absence. The general picture is of a working assumption in the field of political writing that children, except as objects of policy, are not relevant to the discourse. The occasions when this notion is explicitly stated are rare and worth noting for that reason. More often it is unstated and, to all appearance, unthought. Apart from a period early in the last century when child labor was a major issue and a spell in the 1960s and early 1970s when political socialization received a great deal of attention, this lack of attention has been the picture for more than a century, and remains so now.

 

Nigel Thomas

So what I understand from the above quote from Children and Politics (click on the quote to see the full text) is that there is simply a vacuum when concerning children's political participation...

I believe it is important for children to not suffer from the danger of a single story... one political interpretation of the world surrounding them, but to have access to all the political opinions and how they impact each person, the world, the environment and themselves...

 

When it comes to preschoolers I do not think this means that we should be teaching them facts about the political parties and what they represent... but by exploring the world and what is happening around them. Critically, and empathically.

 

I know that during the elections that many preschool settings have had their own mini-elections... clearly indicating that politics and young children is not something that everyone is avoiding...

But the problem comes up when things like the environment, which should really be about nature, well-being etc has been politicised by the fact that we need our governments to take action to regulate industry etc (as it has become clear that it is not enough on an individual basis) and the political parties have extremely different opinions about whether or not there is a climate change problem that needs to be addressed. This means that for many people taking a stand to make changes to protect and improve the climate means that a person is choosing a political ideology rather than just making a statement about the natural environment.

 

If this is the case then everything we are doing in schools about recycling, upcycling and sustainability are political statements. This means the fact we have a curriculum based on democracy is a political statement...
children are immersed in politics but are then expected not to have a voice...

 

The preschoolers I am taking to the protest are not striking, they go there with us.  The other teenagers that are there are not attending school, with the consequences/risk that brings with that (it is against the law for children not to go to foundation school (7-16) in Sweden, and for those attending gymnasium (high school/sixth form) they get study benefits and not child benefit... and this will be taken from them if they have too much absence from school.... then there are grades too... if you are not in class you are not proving that you know).

The preschoolers I work with have a choice of excursion... they do not have to come, they can choose the other option, as well as the parents... and some parents have made that choice for their children not to attend.

 

Also for preschoolers when doing an excursion like this it is not just about the destination... the journey there is very much a part of the process - the children will be exposed to the underground train, a walk through the old town (which coincidently enlargened back in medieval days by dumping rubbish in the lake and sea to expand the island - but it was a very different kind of rubbish back then from the rubbish being dumped in water today!!), they will see how the buildings and streets differ from their own area of Stockholm, they will see tourists from all over the world, and then afterwards they will see that there are not many spaces for children in this part of the town, no real play-spaces... even if we can find space to play... which of course there will be plenty of time to do before eating lunch outside and returning to the preschool to reflect on the morning.

Our job as educators then will be to see what have the children taken from this WHOLE experience... and how to move on from the children's play, interactions and opinions. Not an agenda of creating mini-activists... simply an opportunity to discover what is going on in our world and whether they want to know more about it.

 

I think many freely talk about the rights of children and the voice of the child without fully understanding what does that mean? What do children have the right to voice? If politics happens to/impacts them at all ages are they only allowed to voice their opinion at certain ages?

Are children not competent to understand politics (I sometimes think that many adults are not competent to understand politics, but that is another story).

What is it they don't understand? I mean by giving them a voice we are not giving them political decision making... simply the opportunity that their opinion is heard.

The below image is from a webiste that posed the question should parents allow children to protest (link can be found if you click the image) - interesting that most the the arguments against are about the children not being competent/capable or that children should be children... (there was a time when women should be women!!! and not vote and were not competent or capable of understanding or having political opinions)

 

 

 

Of course children, especially young children, have not amassed the same amount of facts and knowledge or gained the experience that adults have... but they still have experiences, knowledge and their own opinions and understanding of the world around them that should be heard...

I mean children are capable of great things... if given the time and space and belief...
Alexandra Scott ate the age of four,suffering from cancer, decided she wanted to have a lemonade stand to raise money for other children like herself... this became the start of something much bigger and has raised millions for children with cancer...

6-year-old Ryan Hreljac learned about children in Africa needing to walk miles and miles for water and raised money by being paid for chores in his neighnourhood to build a well at a primary school in Uganda... he then has carried on this mission and built wells in many places

Here is a webpage with more children that have impacted the world... showing their competence - so clearly we cannot say that not being capable is the reason for children not being allowed to voice their opinions in a political arena... all of these children mentioned have achieved things that most adults have never achieved or even dared to try and achieve. But I assume that all of these children have had the support and belief of others around them to allow their voice to be heard.

 

This debate between various positions is still with us: should we do our utmost to protect children at the cost of setting them outside ‘society’ or should we acknowledge them as persons, participants, citizens at a price perhaps of exposing them to economic, political and sexual forces – seen as dangers by Garbarino? I believe that both Garbarino and Ariès/Benedict have a good case. Nobody is really ready to sacrifice the necessary protection of children in order to expose them to any risks of a modern society; on the other hand, nobody should accept children’s exclusion from experiencing themselves as contributing persons in society. The question is now if these various positions have bearings for our discussion today about childhood and politics?

Jens Qvortrup, Professor of sociology, Department of Sociology and Political Science, Norwegian University for Science and Technology, Trondheim.

 

So it is a dilemma... how do we include and protect at the same time?

It is a balance... as with most things in life.

The full text can be read by clicking on the above quote.

 

I think we also need to explore what is a political pawn, as that was the original criticism that has got me thinking. For me a pawn is something that can be easily sacrificed... and that is absolutely clearly not the case with my relationship with these children. In fact I actually don't like the hierarchy that  is the chess board comparison... with certain pieces having higher value and more freedom to move around the board... as a chess game analogy is about one side defeating another and taking out players... I want to promote a game of listening, of understanding - and making decisions that will positively impact everyone...

 

I attended a film and discussion panel yesterday (because my daughter was the youth representative on the panel) - the film was called Merchants of Doubt and is focussed on how doubt is being sold to enable big companies to continue making a profit... the tobacco industry started this, at first they lied, but when they realised they could not lie anymore, the sold doubt about whether tobacco was hazardous for health (despite knowing from their own research that it was). it bought them 50 years of selling tobacco, and also advertising as a health product for some time...

 

What interested me in the panel discussion was that it most environmentalist do not feel there is going to be the change made in time to actually save our planet... that a democracy does not help us get things done, because the politicians are playing a game of getting voted and doing the right things is not always a popular choice. In this sense a dictatorship is much better to get things done.

And also that people believe more in their ideology, and being loyal to that, than being open to listening and to change.

I have explored this in previous posts how I think that the school system focuses on specific sets of facts, on debate and winning and defending an opinion rather than exploring ideas, and learning from each other...

We talk about democratic schools and learning, but it is still very teacher down, filling the child with facts.

Now facts are important, and children need to gather them, learn them and analyse and know how to use them in their education - but if the focus is always on the child listening to the teacher, and the teacher listening to the children individually to meet all their needs... then the most important part gets missed... the children listening to each other... this is a skill that is obviously lacking in many many adults. It is not enough to get the children to make presentations to their peers, or to do group work, or to learn how to debate... the children from preschool up to the day they leave school, need to learn how to REALLY listen. Listen to others and give value and respect to what others say... that does not mean they have to agree with them... but it does mean they listen to understand rather than hear the words while preparing an attack or a defence to shut the other down.

 

Anyway I think children should not be used. Not used for my political agenda, or anyone's political agenda - but I do not think that means children should be excluded from voicing their opinions about how political decisions impact their lives. They need to be given the tools, the space, the access to knowledge to form their own opinions and to be listened to when they speak out...

 

BUT I still think this is something I need and want to keep reflecting on...

 

I have received an e-mail from Margereta Rönnberg... she is has written a blogpost that is worth reading on this subject (In Swedish)

Kan förskolepedagogik vara ”opolitisk” – samtidigt som ekologiska, sociala och ekonomiska hållbarhetsaspekter ska synliggöras?

 

and a book... 

"Barns rätt till sin röst. Om de yngstas politiska och kommunikativa rättigheter", Visby: Filmförlaget 2014 (192 s.) 180:- inkl. moms & frakt från filmforlaget@telia.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© 2017 Suzanne Axelsson. Interaction Imagination. Stockholm, Sweden.
suzanne@interactionimagination.com