Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 4, 1996 Form

Exploring The Politics
Of Childhood

Stacey Patton
Editorial Intern
Much of the debate surrounding the presidential elections has been focused around children.

Welfare reform, school improvement and money for higher education have worked their way into the campaign rhetoric of Republican candidate Bob Dole and President Clinton. But neither has stopped to reflect on exactly what it means to be a child in America today or what is the nature of childhood as we move into the 21st century.

What independent moral systems guide children's lives? How do children think about power, fairness and justice? How do they think about work and play? Sex and love? How do children create safe spaces, establish "fictive" families, mark territories, colonize, domesticate the social and geographical worlds they inhabit? How do children react to adults including police, shopkeepers, neighbors, mentors or casual employers who are neither their parents nor teachers?

Anthropology responds to these sorts of questions. And Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, asked those questions and explored the "Missing Child in Anthropology" as she spoke last Monday on the Homewood campus at the fifth annual Sidney W. Mintz Lecture in Anthropology.

Scheper-Hughes has done anthropological research in northeast Brazil, County Kerry, Ireland, the New South Africa and various parts of the United States. She has written three books: Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics; Child Survival: Anthropological Perspectives on the Treatment and Maltreatment of Children; and Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Through her writing and research, she attempts to reveal the hidden collective attitudes toward the births, lives and deaths of children. She has analyzed the cultural politics of childhood and the ideological notions about children that include descriptions such as psychologically fragile, impressionable, dependent, innocent, uniquely precious and a special kind of creature requiring long-term investment of care, affection and parental love.

Scheper-Hughes said there is a notable absence of children's narratives, voices and perspectives throughout the world and that often, to their detriment, children are seen but rarely heard.

"It should be no surprise that I will represent the anthropology of childhood here largely as a story of survival and resilience," she said.

Stepping outside the American culture has helped her to explore different attitudes about children. Understanding the political, ideological and social uses of childhood has advanced her research. She also reflected upon aspects of childhood life including premature deaths of children, abuse, neglect and sexual exploitation.

To explore the differences between middle-class children, street children and bourgeois children, she presented slides to show their life styles in photographic detail.

"The life of a young child here is short ... for a street kid to reach 30 years of age is a miracle," she explained as she spoke of her travels in Brazil. She painted the life of a nutritionally stunted 11-year-old street kid from Bom Jesus who had been released from jail. He said: "I am small but I already know a few things. My mother said I was so small that I could hardly be born at all. Before I left home I suffered a lot. ... As the eldest I was left alone in charge of everything. You could say that I was like the dona da casa, the woman of the house. I did the shopping, the cleaning, the cooking. The babies were always hungry and sick. ... In the end all of them died. When they were sick I wrapped them up and took them to the clinic and when any of them died it was left to me to go to the mayor and get a free coffin. And it was me who washed them, dressed them and 'arranged' them in their boxes. I did everything! I only didn't die myself because I was the oldest and I was lucky. Finally, I run away. In the streets it was better. I smelled glue and I robbed. But after the police grabbed me ... in jail it was bad, miserable. The other boys called me names like 'fag' and 'queer' and the bigger ones raped me."

The story of the 11-year-old boy was one of many stories that Scheper-Hughes told to illustrate how in some societies adults tend to construct pseudo-adults through their expectations of children.

"Childhood as an idea is diminishing. And real children are losing ground." With this idea Scheper-Hughes also noted that adult cognition, morality and emotions remain some of the gold standards against which children's ways of thinking, feeling, responding and being in the world are measured.

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