I usually try to preface this conversation with a joke or something that indicates how many people find me rather nice, or how I attract sick puppies and butterflies, or I drop an anecdote about my authentic and lasting relationships with people across different generations. Why? Because raising the question of the social construction of childhood, the “strangeness” of this category, and questioning how the artifact of the child circulates in political movements makes me look, well, possibly unfit to participate in humanity.
I exaggerate. In our current context, it is painfully clear who does not count as a child and is not afforded the associated privileges – innocence and sentience. Christian Fernandez, now fourteen years old, charged in Florida as an adult with first-degree murder in the 2011 death of his brother. Six-year-old Salecia Johnson handcuffed and taken from her kindergarten class at Creekside Elementary School in Milledgeville, Georgia, to jail by a police officer. The hundreds of Brown and Black thirteen and fourteen year old students enrolled in many of the Chicago’s public military high schools. The dozens of young First Nations women under age eighteen that have gone missing along the highway between Prince Rupert and Prince George, now known as the Trail of Tears, in my home province of British Columbia. The list continues. Poor, queer, non-able bodied, Brown and/or Black bodies are rarely afforded unconditional participation in the category of the child or access to childhood’s awkward relations – juvenile, adolescent, youth, or the newest category created to ensure that children of privilege can stay on their parents’ healthcare after college, emerging adult.
The other line of inquiry is more tricky, awkward, vaguely suspect, perhaps queer. What horizons are foreclosed when political campaigns invoke the figure of the child, a malleable construct? For example consider the use of “child saving” strategies in campaigns to legalize and to challenge gay marriage? The real gay marriage question, apparently, is whether queers are exemplary or evil parents. Or, think about how the image of the child is visible in struggles both for and against prison construction. While towns lobby against prison closures to provide economic futures for their young people, those of us opposed argue that these prisons are the end point of the school to prison pipeline.
How many of us have been at a meeting, an event, or even a party – when someone makes a statement about how a particular issue will impact children, sometimes their children – and the dialogue takes a different direction. Never a “neutral” container or representation, in political circulations the child not only performs a kind of temporal-future oriented magic, but it also masks key social and political transactions.
Rather than assuming this is a natural or obvious designation, this is an effort to explore “child” as a socially constructed category. What is the politics of this construction? Who does, and who does not, count as a child? How are representations of the child used in political campaigns and in social movements? Kids Aren’t All Right is initiated by Erica Meiners, who invited several contributors to consider this topic. Responses are published in AREA #14, released in April 2014.