Childhood in a Global Perspective - Karen Wells - ebook

Childhood in a Global Perspective ebook

Karen Wells

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The second edition of this compelling and popular book offers aunique global perspective on children's lives throughout theworld. It shows how the notion of childhood is being radicallyre-shaped, in part as a consequence of globalization. Taking an engaging historical and comparative approach, the bookexplores social issues such as how children are constituted asraced, classed and gendered subjects; how children'sinvolvement in war is connected to the globalization of capitalismand organized crime; and how school and work operate as sites forthe governing of childhood. The book discusses wide-ranging topicsincluding children's rights, the family, children and war,child labour and young people's activism around the globe. Inaddition to updated literature throughout, the revised editionincludes new chapters on migration and trafficking, and the role ofplay. The book will continue to be of great value to students andscholars in the fields of sociology, geography, social policy anddevelopment studies. It will also be a valuable companion topractitioners of international development and social work, as wellas to anyone interested in childhood in the contemporary world.

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Title Page


1 Childhood in a Global Context


Is there a global form of childhood?

Governing childhood internationally

The organization of the book

Recommended further reading

2 Policy and Practice


Rescuing children: the history of child-saving

Children’s rights: participation or protection?

Responding to images of children


Recommended further reading

3 Gender, Race and Class



Race and racism in the United States

Racial classification, racial identification and mixed-parentage children

The intersections of class, race, gender and age


Recommended further reading

4 Children and Families


The governance of the family

Children in public


Recommended further reading

5 School and Work


Education and globalization

Working children

The impact of schools: schools as a moral technology


Recommended further reading

6 Play in a Global Context


Autonomous childhood cultures?

The toy industry: from local to global

Digital play


Recommended further reading

7 Children and Politics


Young political activists: children or youth?

School as a site of political mobilization

Political mobilization and generational conflict

Young moral guardians


Recommended further reading

8 Children and Youth at War


Contemporary war

Child soldiers


Recommended further reading

9 Children and Migration


Social reproduction

Independent child and youth migration

Changing patterns of migration


Recommended further reading

10 Rescuing Children and Children’s Rights


What is social reproduction?

Rescuing children

The rights of cultures and the rights of children


Recommended further reading



End User License Agreement



Table of Contents

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For David Lawrence McKuur 1960–2006

Childhood in a Global Perspective

Second edition



Copyright © Karen Wells 2015

The right of Karen Wells to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First edition published in 2009 by Polity Press

This second edition first published in 2015 by Polity Press

Polity Press65 Bridge StreetCambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press350 Main StreetMalden, MA 02148, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-8497-0

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Wells, Karen C.

Childhood in a global perspective / Karen Wells. -- Second edition.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN 978-0-7456-8493-2 (hardback : alk. paper) -- ISBN 978-0-7456-8494-9 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Children. 2. Child development. 3. Children--Social conditions. I. Title.

HQ767.9.W457 2014



The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.

Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

For further information on Polity, visit our


Childhood in a Global Context


This book is about children and childhood in a global context. In it I connect children’s experiences to concepts of childhood, drawing on research about children’s lives across the globe. I show how concepts of childhood shape children’s lives and how children, in turn, shape concepts of childhood. These concepts or ideas about what children should and should not do, of where children are safe and where they are at risk, and of where childhood begins and where it ends have been the central theme of the new social studies of childhood (James and Prout 1990; James et al. 1998; Jenks 1996). These studies have been important in advancing our understanding of how childhood is shaped by cultural and social practices and processes. However, with one or two exceptions, existing studies have focused on national contexts and have been dominated by accounts of North American and European childhoods. In an increasingly globalized world, a focus on national contexts has to be supplemented by an understanding of how local practices are impacted on by global processes and that where people live affects how they live. It is the task of this book to show that where children live affects what kinds of childhood they have and to explore how global flows and structures, including flows of capital, the activities of international NGOs and structures of international law are reshaping childhood.

Is there a global form of childhood?

The new social studies of childhood

The new social studies of childhood, whether from a historical, spatial or social perspective, have established that children’s lives are shaped by the social and cultural expectations adults and their peers have of them in different times and places; what concept of childhood prevails in any specific time or place is shaped by many factors external to a child, including the complicated intersection of age with ‘race’, gender and class. Childhood is socially constructed, and children’s lives are profoundly shaped by constructions of childhood – whether in conformity, resistance or reinvention.

Sociology of childhood

The new sociology of childhood generally situates its staring point as the publication of Allison James and Alan Prout’s 1990 edited collection Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociology of Childhood and the subsequent publication with Chris Jenks of Theorizing Childhood (1998). Their work was prefigured by Jenks’ much earlier edited reader of key texts on The Sociology of Childhood (1982) and his later Childhood (1996).

The new sociology of childhood established a field of inquiry about children (the lived experiences of children) and childhood (the concept that informs expectations and attitudes towards children) that sought to understand children’s lifeworlds as they were lived. This focus on children as they are, rather than how their childhood experiences might shape the adults they may become, differentiates the sociology of childhood from other social science disciplines, particularly education and developmental psychology, that have been most engaged with the academic study of children and childhood. Allison and Adrian James contend that ‘“childhood” is the structural site that is occupied by “children” as a collectivity. And it is within this collective and institutional space of “childhood”, as a member of the category “children” that any individual “child” comes to exercise his or her unique agency’ (James and James 2004: 15). They argue that the term ‘child’, which is often used, especially in policy discourse, in place of children, as if all children’s experience could be collapsed into a singular, uniform experience, dismisses children’s uniqueness. The use of the term ‘the child’, as for example in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, makes us think of the child as an individual lacking collective agency.

In Constructing Childhood James and James claim that only the sociology of childhood recognizes children’s active agency in contrast to ‘the more structurally determined accounts of childhood change offered by historians of childhood and the family, by developmental psychologists, social policy specialists, socialisation theorists and others’ (James and James 2004: 17); but perhaps this is overstating disciplinary differences. Histories of childhood and children are not only ‘structurally determined’, they also attempt to record and account for the interplay between children’s agency and the social structures that organize and constrain their lives. Similarly, the sociology of childhood has to consider how social structures constrain or at least shape the lives of contemporary children. One attempt to do so is William Corsaro’s concept of ‘interpretive reproduction’ (Corsaro 2005).

James and James also note that childhood, whilst a specific moment in the life course with common experiences, is also embedded with differences that fracture or cut across the shared experiences of children and shared concepts of childhood in any particular time or space (James and James 2004: 22). Whilst this is clearly the case, the challenge of depicting and analysing how childhood is shaped by other social identities, including ‘race’, class and gender, has not been actively taken up within the contemporary sociology of childhood; the childhoods of white and middle-class children have remained the central subject of the sociology of childhood. An early exception to this is John and Elizabeth Newson’s classic text Four Years Old in an Urban Community (1968). Although this study is based primarily on interviews with the mothers of young children, it offers a wealth of detail and insight into how class shaped the interplay between parental attitudes and children’s responses (and how children’s responses acted in turn on parents’ attitudes) in urban England.

One of the goals of the new paradigm of childhood has been to stress the agency of children and to incorporate the voice of children into childhood studies. Berry Mayall (2002) in her book on the lives of London children over a ten-year period argues for a ‘child standpoint’. Standpoint theory, an approach developed by some feminist scholars, claims that a subaltern social group, say women, or children, have a deep understanding of the structures of feeling developed through the experience of living within a patriarchal or age-patriarchal (Hood-Williams 1990) society. This experiential understanding enables a social group to theorize society more robustly precisely because they approach it from a particular standpoint. Feminist standpoint theory has been criticized for its implicit assumption that women’s life experiences are not radically fractured or cut across by other social locations, particularly ‘race’ and class. The same critique can be made against child standpoint theory – that it emphasizes the common, age-based and generational experience of being a child over the way that experience is shaped by children’s raced and classed identities and locations. Furthermore, child standpoint theory shares with participatory methods of child research the problem that the researchers working with children are not themselves children, a fact that stretches the coherence of both standpoint theory and participatory methods almost to breaking point.

The new sociology of childhood also emphasizes that childhood is a relational category that cannot be understood, in any time or place, without an understanding of the expectations of adulthood. Mayall identifies this as a ‘structural sociology of childhood’, contrasting it to ‘a deconstructive sociology of childhood’ and also to a ‘sociology of children’. It is within the ‘structural sociology of childhood’ that Mayall places her own work and that of Jens Qvortrup, both of whom deploy Mannheim’s concept of generation to understand how childhood is conceptualized and lived by cohorts of children (Mayall 2002: 27; see also Alanen 2001). It emphasizes the shared experiences of children. A deconstructive sociology of childhood, by contrast, attends to local constructions of childhood whilst the sociology of children stresses ‘children’s relations with adults in their daily lives’ (Mayall 2002: 22). These distinctions seem to me to be overdrawn. Qvortrup does argue for the use of the singular ‘childhood’ rather than the multiple ‘childhoods’, but his work is confined to the European context, in which there is a normative childhood against which the actual lived experiences of children are understood as being ‘normal’ or ‘pathological’. Within any particular historical and social context there will be a normative and hegemonic concept of childhood against which children themselves are compared as individuals and collectives. Finally, although Mayall places her own work in the ‘structural sociology of childhood’ (Mayall 2002: 23), elsewhere in the same book she argues for the importance of understanding children not only as actors but also as agents (Mayall 2002: 21). In brief, the sociology of childhood shares with other sociological perspectives an interest in structure and agency and the iterative relationship between the two (what Giddens refers to as structuration and Marx as dialectical materialism) and in how binary concepts (in this case adult/child) are relational to one another.

History of childhood

In 1960 Philippe Ariès published his seminal study L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’ancien régime. This book, first published in English in 1962 as Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (Ariès 1973), has been the reference point for the debate on whether the concept of childhood is an invention of the modern period. Ariès’ argument was essentially that as soon as children left the dependent state of early childhood there was no concept of children as a separate category of people requiring special or distinctive treatment from adults. Children in the Middle Ages in Europe, he argues, were treated like small adults and were immersed in all aspects of social and working life and were not accorded any special protection, rights or responsibilities. The sources Ariès drew on, mostly analysis of images of children in medieval portraiture, depicted children as small versions of adults. In these pictures, Ariès claims, children are invariably wearing the same clothes as adults, without any of the stylized features – chubbiness, large eyes, body–head ratios, smiling faces, small hands – that later artists used to depict children as different kinds of people from adults. Ariès infers from this difference in how children are depicted that in the earlier period there was no such thing as childhood.

Historians have taken issue with both the limited sources that Ariès relies on and the inferences that he draws from these sources (Pollock 1983; Vann 1982). Portraiture was expensive and the people who commissioned portraits of their families or themselves were a small elite whose attitudes to childhood and, for the children, experience of childhood were likely to be very different from that of the general population. Portraits are also highly stylized and use special conventions, so that how children are portrayed in these paintings cannot necessarily be taken as an indication of their experience of everyday life.

Despite the lively debate about Ariès’ work, the central contention of Centuries of Childhood that the attitudes, sensibilities and experiences that we now think of as immanent to childhood are an invention of the modern period is widely accepted by historians and social scientists. In their introduction to the important collection of papers on historical research into American childhood, Joseph Hawes and Ray Hiner comment that ‘Ariès has been justly criticized for his selective and sometimes uncritical use of evidence, but no one has successfully challenged his essential point that childhood is not an immutable stage of life, free from the influence of historical change’ (Hawes and Hiner 1985: 3). Since Ariès a steady flow of historical accounts of childhood has been produced in North America and Europe, and there has been renewed interest in the history of childhood by historians of Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is these regional studies that I will now discuss.

Histories of American childhood Although Ariès’ Centuries of Childhood was first published in English in 1962, it was not for another twenty years that the history of childhood became a major theme of historical studies of American society. Despite the relative paucity of historical work on childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, some key texts were published, including Robert Bremmer’s three-volume collection of sources, Children and Youth in America (1971), and Joseph F. Kett’s Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America,1790 to the present (1977). Since the mid-1980s the new interest in children’s studies across the social sciences and the humanities has stimulated the publication of books exploring the experience of childhood at different points in history, as well as the experiences of groups of children. Hawes and Hiner published their edited collection on the history of American childhood in 1985. This collection is an invaluable source that brings together in one volume chapters that review the historiography of childhood and provide an outline of the conditions of childhood in colonial North America and the United States from the seventeenth through to the third quarter of the twentieth century. Taken together the chapters in this book tell a now familiar story in which children’s lives become less harsh, more sheltered and possibly more cherished as the centuries unfold. However, this picture is complicated by the acknowledgement of how race, class, gender and geography impacted on children’s lives and on expectations of childhood held by both children and adults.

A decade after the publication of American Childhood Hawes and Hiner edited the Twayne’s History of American Childhood series, which has published books on child-rearing in the period from the Revolution to the Civil War (Reinier 1996), on how the Civil War and industrialization shaped the experience of childhood (Clement 1997), on the impact of Progressive Era reforms on children (Macleod 1998), and on how children experienced the interwar years (Hawes 1997).

Reinier uses archival sources to trace what she argues is a shift in childrearing from authoritarian, patriarchal discipline to the management and guidance of ‘malleable’ children. This shift in ideals of child-rearing was uneven in its impact, and Reinier shows that poor and enslaved children’s labour provided the capital accumulation on which middle-class children’s education and consumption depended. Clement’s study also picks up this theme of the differentiation of childhood. Her main argument is that industrialization and Civil War sharpened differences between the experience of working-class and middle-class children and between African American and European American children. Macleod’s study continues the chronology of American childhood, covering the period 1890–1920. Macleod’s claim is that the hardening of class differences in experiences of childhood did not diminish in the Progressive Reform era. Indeed he contends that the ideal of a protected childhood stigmatized parents who were unable to protect their children as well as those children who resisted increased protection because it diminished their freedom. Hawes’ study of the interwar years is good on the role that the new sciences of childhood played in the formation of our idea of modern childhood. Shelley Sallee’s The Whiteness of Child Labor Reform in the New South (2004) also points to how the emerging concept of protected childhood was used to deepen racialized exclusion in campaigns that mobilized support for the abolition of child labour around the idea that it undermined white power and childhood for white children to be working.

The unevenness of the shift to protected or sheltered childhoods draws attention to the need for multiple histories that describe and illuminate how the experience of childhood has been shaped by race, class, gender and region. There is a small body of work on the history of African American, immigrant and working-class childhoods, as well as references to their experiences in general histories. Wilma King’s African American Childhoods (2005) is a useful collection of essays on different aspects of African American childhood from slavery through to the Civil Rights era. It explores different aspects of children’s lives in this period, including slavery, education and violence. Many of the chapters focus on minority experiences of African American childhood – there are chapters on African American slave-owners and on African American families categorized as Native American for school attendance. While this is very interesting, there is yet to be a comprehensive history of the experience of the majority of African American children in any era of American history. Steven Mintz has a chapter in his Huck’s Raft (2004) on growing up in bondage. In Growing up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race (2006), Jennifer Ritterhouse examines how the determination of most white adults to maintain racial inequality after the Civil War shaped the childhood experiences and sensibilities of black and white children.

Ritterhouse’s book makes extensive use of archival interviews and biographies of adults looking back on their childhood. This illustrates some of the problems with constructing histories of childhood: children leave few written records, and those who do tend to be children of elite groups. Despite the limitations of the sources and the focus on relations between black and white children, Growing up Jim Crow rounds out the experience of African American childhood after emancipation. A growing literature on children’s involvement in the desegregation of schools and Civil Rights Movement has also added to our understanding of childhood and the agency that children bring to bear on their lives in very difficult circumstances (de Schweinitz 2004; King 2005: 155–68).

Histories of Latin American childhood In his introduction to Minor Omissions, an edited collection of essays on the history of Latin American childhood spanning the seventeenth to the twentieth century, Tobias Hecht cites Mary del Priore’s História das crianças no Brasil (1999) as ‘the most ambitious – and successful – attempt to deal with children as part of a national history in Latin America’ (2002: 9). Other than del Priore’s volume, which is only available in Portuguese, the history of Latin American childhood is less developed than that of North American childhoods (Hecht 1998: 3; Kuznesof 2005: 859). The central focus of Latin American history has been on family structures, with Gilberto Freyre’s 1933 (1963) account of family life on a sixteenth-century Brazilian sugar plantation remaining a keystone of the literature. His ‘vivid portrait made it clear the Portuguese family was the dominant institution in Brazil for colonization, government, education, maintenance of order and economic investment’ (Kuznesof 2005: 862). The North American history of childhood forms part of a narrative of general progress and improvement, tempered by increased differentiation by ‘race’ and class of children’s experiences. This is not the case for Latin American history, where the themes that preoccupy historians of childhood continue to be the focus of the contemporary sociology of Latin American childhood. Minor Omissions, for example, has chapters on abandoned children and the structure of the family, criminal children, children and urban disorder, the child-saving movement, the impact of war on children, the practice of informal fostering, or ‘child-circulation’, amongst poor families, and street children. Each of these, especially street children (Guy 2002), childcirculation, family structure, and conflict (Peterson and Read 2002), remain core themes of the Latin American sociology of childhood.

Histories of African childhood What we know of children’s experiences and society’s concepts of childhood in the history of Africa is very limited. In The Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: In History and Society (Fass 2003) there is only one entry on the continent, the entry for South Africa. There are no general surveys that form part of a coherent narrative of children’s worlds in Africa as there is for North American and European history. With the exception of East African Childhood: Three Versions (Fox 1967), there are no readily available sources that attempt to recover the voice of the African child. The contributors to East African Childhood give a vivid picture of early childhood in colonial East Africa. The emphasis here is on the child’s feelings about the child’s world and, although they are written by adults in a rather stylized narrative, this is an invaluable collection of memoirs. More recently the biography of his boyhood in turn-of-the-century Ghana by the Asante social scientist T. E. Kyei (2001) has made an important contribution to our understanding of colonial African childhood. Aside from these memoirs, and other more literary memoirs by both African and European adults remembering their African childhoods, most of the rather small historiography of African childhood is focused on child labour.

The emerging literature on African child labour (Chirwa 1993; Hansen 1990; Swai 1979) shows how important African child labour was to the processes of capital accumulation for white farmers and the (colonial) state in East and Southern Africa. Beverley Grier’s Invisible Hands: Child Labor and the State in Colonial Zimbabwe (2006) is the first book-length study of the history of child labour in an African country. Grier’s seminal contribution to the historiography of African childhood shows how African children ‘struggled to shape the circumstances of their own lives and …, in the process, helped to shape the history of the colony’ (2006: 2).

An organizing theme of Grier’s book is that childhood in Zimbabwe was a racialized concept that meant that the lives of black children and white children and expectations placed on them by the colonial state, white farmers and their families were entirely shaped by racist ideology. In the areas of significant white settlement, childhood was ‘racially based, with the childhood of settlers being organized in radically different ways from the childhood of Africans’ (Grier 2006: 18). This theme is also at the heart of Owen White’s study of the children of African–European parents, Children of the French Empire: Miscegenation and Colonial Society in French West Africa 1895–1960 (1999). This is also one of the few histories of African childhood that does not take either school or work as its main focus (although it discusses both). It explores instead how the French state responded to African–European children or what they called ‘the Métis problem’ through strategies of separating in school, work and family métissage children from both African and European populations. Surprisingly, given the obsession during Apartheid rule with establishing degrees of Europeanness/ Africanness, there is no comparable history for South Africa.

The meaning of childhood and children’s experiences are inseparable from the ways that colonial rule was established over African territory. The colonial state and white settler capital utilized ‘[t]he belief that children should contribute to the material reproduction of their households [which] was a core aspect of the construction of childhood among the Shona and Ndebele people’ (Grier 2006: 29) at the end of the nineteenth century. This belief has to be situated in a context of labour-intensive agricultural production which meant that all household members had to contribute their labour to the maintenance of the household. Children were no exception, and whilst boys and girls mostly took on different tasks, all children had to work. Colonization changed the organization of agricultural production and with it African concepts of childhood, particularly in relation to work and school (Grier 2006: 33–68). Ironically, as Africans started to seek out school education for their children in the belief that this might erode the material and status differences between themselves and the white settlers, the colonial state banned white children from work and made school compulsory for them but not for African children.

Histories of European childhood Comprehensive surveys of European childhood can be found in Colin Heywood’s A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times (2001), Linda Pollock’s Forgotten Children (1983) and Hugh Cunningham’s Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500 (1995). Cunningham’s interest is in what he describes as middle-class childhood and the ways that this particular concept of childhood was generalized to the wider, working-class populations of industrial Europe. From about 1750 Cunningham argues that there was a great increase in state intervention in children’s lives, beginning with the gradual regulation of child labour in the nineteenth century and the introduction of compulsory schooling making school a common experience of childhood by the end of the nineteenth century. Heywood’s book uses a wide range of historical sources about children’s lives in North America and Europe and contends that childhood (or the ‘concept of childhood’) is not a modern invention but that what people expect of children (‘conceptions of childhood’) has changed in response to wider changes in society, especially in the shift from agricultural to industrial economies. Heywood refutes the view, advanced most famously by Lloyd de Mause (1988), that parents were abusive or neglectful of their children in the past. He argues that parental practices such as swaddling that might seem, from a contemporary viewpoint, abusive were motivated by care and concern. Pollock’s Forgotten Children also finds evidence from diary sources that a concept of childhood is not a modern invention and that harsh treatment of children was not normative in the four centuries of her study (from 1500 to 1900).

These histories of European childhood are much more circumspect than the North American histories about a general narrative of progress. Heywood charts the fall in child mortality and the improvements in children’s health, the expansion of schooling and increases in state intervention, but stresses the persistence of inequalities between classes, regions and ethnic groups so as ‘to avoid an air of triumphalism’ (2001: 145).

Histories of Asian childhood Presenting a coherent historiography of childhood for Asia is more difficult than for the Americas or Europe and Africa because of the extraordinary diversity of this region. I have decided therefore to focus on China, both because of its demographic and spatial predominance in Asia, and because of its economic significance in the international political economy. The historiography of childhood in China has a wealth of written texts, mostly of course from elites, to draw on literally over centuries. Little of this is available, however, either synthesized or translated into English. Jon Saari’s Legacies of Childhood: Growing up Chinese in a Time of Crisis, 1890–1920 (1990) is a study of how Chinese concepts of becoming human inflected concepts of childhood and attitudes towards children and parenting practices. He weaves Chinese ideas about becoming human together with a history of the lives of privileged young men in turnof-the-twentieth-century China. A much broader picture of Chinese childhood is to be found in Ping-Chen Hsiung’s A Tender Voyage: Children and Childhood in Late Imperial China (2005). Hsiung draws on twelfth-century sources to show that paediatric health care was well developed in China from a very early period and locates this as an indicator of the high cultural value attached to children. In an apparent, and rather surprising, echo of a Western binary between Romantic and Puritan concepts of childhood, Hsiung identifies within the Confucian tradition a neo-Confucian model that emphasized control, discipline and punishment and the Wang-ming school of awakening the child through education and self-reflection.

Histories of childhood: an overview I began this section on the history of childhood with a brief discussion of Ariès’ contention that childhood is a modern invention. My reviews of the historiography of childhood in four continents show that this claim is clearly wrong. In each of these diverse regions, societies recognized childhood as a distinct phase in the life cycle, and children as a different kind of people to adults. A historical narrative of general improvement in children’s lives secured through a combination of state intervention, philanthropic concern and economic growth is evident in North America and, less decisively, in Europe. In both these regions, however, this story of progress went hand-in-hand with an increased differentiation of children’s lives by class, ethnicity and region. In Africa and Latin America there is no comparable narrative about the constant improvement of children’s lives and increasingly benign experience of childhood. The differentiation of childhood experience evident in North American and European histories is deeper, and a protected, nurturing childhood has been available only to a minority of elite and white settler children. In the absence of a narrative of progress there is considerable continuity between the history of childhood in these two regions and the sociology of African and Asian childhood, small though that literature is. In both history and sociology we find a preoccupation with children’s social problems – in particular in relation to work and family life.

Social and cultural geography

The study of childhood within geography can be traced to the 1970s when a small but significant literature on children’s environments was being written (Holloway and Valentine 2000: 7). Enduring contributions to our understanding of how the built environment shapes children’s lifeworlds and how children’s perceptual capacities shape their engagement with their physical environment were made by James Blaut and David Stea (Blaut and Stea 1971; Blaut et al. 1970) in their Place Perception Project. Roger Hart’s work spanning the period from the publication in 1971 (with Gary Moore) of a research report for the Place Perception Project to his current work on children’s participation in the design of the built environment, particularly his ‘ladder of participation’ (Hart 1992), has influenced the design of participatory research and NGO-led action research with children. The geographer Kevin Lynch published an edited collection, Growing up in Cities (1997), that reported the findings of a UNESCO-funded project on ‘children in the city’. It remains an important source for researchers interested in how place impacts on children’s everyday experiences. Although this work was rather isolated in the 1970s and 1980s, a renewed interest in children’s geographies, perhaps stimulated by the resurgence of the sociology of childhood, emerged in the 1990s. Some of this work continues in the tradition of children’s environmental cognition and spatial awareness mentioned above (Chawla 2002; Driskell 2002), but there is also a new interest in this work on the interplay between society and space and in giving children ‘voice’.

One of the central concerns of childhood geographers has been to examine children’s use of public space. Much of this work contends that children subvert the intended use of designed play space and make play and leisure spaces out of the interstices of public space – hidden spaces and wasteland. Colin Ward’s lovingly photographed The Child in the City (1978) is probably the classic text here. Other geographers working in this area include Stuart Aitken (2001a) and Owain Jones (2000). On a slightly different but perhaps related track, other geographers have written on how children in public spaces are often considered to be ‘out of place’ and therefore unruly and threatening. This is an interesting area of inquiry in that it allows for comparative analysis of the experiences of street children in the Global South and that of teenagers caught in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood in the Global North (see Beazley 2000; Matthews et al. 2000; Valentine 2004).

Holloway and Valentine in their introduction to a very interesting collection of papers on Children’s Geographies claim that ‘geographical studies can add texture and detail to the currently rather broadbrush analysis of the social construction of childhood’ (2000: 9). Whether the claim that the sociology of childhood has a ‘broadbrush’ approach is justified, social geography has made it very clear that, just as childhood changes over time or in history (see above), it is also shaped by place or geography. Literally, where children live will shape their experience of the world and the expectations placed on them (Holloway and Valentine 2000: 9–11). The split that Allison James, Chris Jenks and Alan Prout (1998) identify between global processes that shape children’s lives and local cultural lifeworlds can be transcended by a spatial appreciation of the connections between the local and the global. Cindi Katz’s excellent comparative study of the lives of children and youth in Howa, a Sudanese village, and in a district of New York, Growing up Global (2004), shows how global economic restructuring has reshaped experiences and expectations of childhood and youth; and how children and their parents are responding to the new demands that new economic processes have placed on them (Holloway and Valentine 2000: 11).

Childhood has universal characteristics

Although childhood is socially constructed and therefore profoundly different expectations can be had of children depending on the society and culture of any specific time or place, childhood also has universal features because all children, by virtue of their immaturity, have similar needs and limitations. Infants are dependent on others for their physical care: for food, shelter, hygiene and safety. An abandoned infant cannot survive for very long. Children also need emotional attachment and, as with their physical care, how emotional bonds are formed with the young child, and by whom, can be subject to a great deal of variation, but the forming of strong emotional attachments to close caregivers is apparently a universal feature of human society. Of course the need for emotional attachment does not end with the end of childhood, but secure attachment seems to be very important, cross-culturally, for the child’s wellbeing. If infants’ biological immaturity makes them dependent on others for their physical care, children can also be considered as socially and culturally immature. Children may not be born as blank slates, but teaching young humans the whole range of cultural practices from how to eat their food to living ethically or morally is a shared concern of all human societies.

This is a material fact that places limits on how plastic or constructed early childhood can be. Nonetheless the limits that the infant’s dependency places on the plasticity of childhood can be very broad. Europeans, for example, tend to think of the newborn child as being a ‘tabula rasa’, sometimes the idea of the child as a blank slate might extend back to the unborn child’s experiences, but in any case it is children’s sensory awareness (whether before or after they are born) that is the beginning of making marks on the blank slate of the child. This view contrasts very sharply with the widespread view in sub-Saharan Africa that infants remember the world they came from and indeed that, to stay in this world or even in a way to become human, they have to forget this other life (Gottlieb 2004). Similarly, the infant has to be fed, but who feeds the infant will vary from culture to culture. In eighteenth-century Europe wet-nursing was a widespread and acceptable practice, but changing ideas about what babies ingested with their mother’s milk made the practice less acceptable. In Alma Gottlieb’s (2004) study any lactating woman may feed children and children will only be passed back to their mothers if they refuse other women’s milk.

The dialectic of childhood is not only then in the play between social structures and children’s agency; it also involves the movement between the materiality of the child’s body (its immaturity, size, vulnerability) and the sociality of the child’s lifeworld (Prout 2000). This also means attending to age as an important element impacting both on how children experience the world and on what the social world expects of children. A young child, for example, will have a very different experience of the physical and the social world than a young teenager, and yet both might be discussed in the category of ‘child’ (Holloway and Valentine 2000: 7).

Childhood is shaped by both the local and the global

History and social studies suggest that there cannot be a global form of childhood; however, children and therefore childhood do have universal characteristics. Additionally, there is a presumption that it is the responsibility of adults to care for children, in culturally sanctioned ways. Finally, there is now a body of law and a group of international actors – intergovernmental, non-governmental and private – that is based on the presumption that childhood can be governed at a global level. One way of resolving the question of whether there can be a global form of childhood is by thinking of the global level, including international law and international actors but also global media, economic flows, war and politics, as a structure that shapes childhood at the local level. Thought of in this way the global becomes one of several structures – others would include the family, school and work – that shape the lives of children and concepts of childhood in any specific socio-cultural setting.

Governing childhood internationally

Childhood is governed by international institutions and international law

A good deal of what is expected of children’s primary caregivers and other individuals or institutions that also have responsibility for the child is codified in customary, religious or national law or ritual. In Islamic law, for example, children are the responsibility of their mothers until the age of seven, when they become the responsibility of their fathers. In Jewish law the boy child should be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. National laws about children are concerned with establishing full entry into adulthood, which is generally preceded by the acquisition of responsibilities or rights (e.g. criminal liability; sexual consent; hours and places of work; compulsory schooling) at different ages. Increasingly the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is being incorporated into national law, changing the legal definitions of childhood as well as establishing in law rights and responsibilities that may be at odds with socially or culturally prevalent models of childhood. In tandem with the CRC, international agencies translate international law into local practice.

The field of child law is not new; debates about the legal competence of young people and the necessity of separate legal procedures for dealing with minors date back to at least the sixteenth century. Alongside this concern about when children could be held responsible for breaking the law runs a connected anxiety about how to keep children from causing injury or harm to themselves or others. It is this anxiety that fuelled the child-saving movements of the nineteenth century in North America and Europe, but the concern about the ability of children to distinguish right from wrong and the moral instruction of children are there in the writings of John Locke (1632–1704) and in the records left by the Puritans in seventeenth-century colonial America.

What is new is the emergence of a field of international law that seeks to regulate childhood on a global scale. This body of law is primarily framed as legal instruments to regulate the protection of children in the participating nation-states. Its most important instrument is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereafter the UNCRC or the Convention). Although the special circumstances of children were noted in previous legislation, for example in the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child and even earlier in the 1924 Declaration of the Rights of the Child by the League of Nations (Sheppard 2000: 40), the adoption of the UNCRC coincided with, and perhaps stimulated, a growth in the field of child rights monitoring.

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

When a special human rights instrument for children was proposed in 1979 by the Polish government to mark the International Year of the Child, children’s rights were very low on the political agenda. C. P. Cohen, who was involved in drafting the Convention, has commented:

Throughout the drafting process, there were strong indications that the Convention on the Rights of the Child might be just a sentimental, symbolic gesture on behalf of children – one that would be quickly disregarded and ignored. Originally, there appeared to be little interest in the Convention. Participation in its drafting was very poor during the first few years. Some critics strongly opposed the creation of a special treaty protecting children’s rights, arguing that children’s rights were already protected under the two human rights Covenants. Other commentators were concerned about poor participation by underdeveloped countries, urging that these countries might consider the Convention to be insensitive to their needs and customs. (Cohen et al. 1996: 471)

In the event developing countries were willing to ratify the Convention; all but one of the first twenty countries to ratify were developing countries (Cohen et al. 1996). Nonetheless, the concept of a global model of childhood that the Convention implicitly expounds was far from accepted by the signatories. Many states entered blanket reservations to the Convention of the kind entered by Djibouti, an Islamic state, which affirmed that ‘[t]he Government of Djibouti shall not consider itself bound by any provisions or articles that are incompatible with its religion and traditional values’ (Harris-Short 2003: 135). Several states, including Singapore, entered reservations that subordinated the Convention to national law.

Given that the model of childhood encoded in the Convention follows a well-established Western discourse on childhood as a time of play, innocence and learning, it might be expected that ‘the West’ were happy to ratify the Convention without reservations. In fact this was not the case. The United States has not ratified the Convention; it is the only state other than Somalia not to have done so. The UK entered reservations in respect of immigration law; these were not lifted until 2008.

The final draft of the Convention was adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1989 and came into force on 25 September 1990 just over six months after the signing ceremony and nearly one month before the World Summit for Children in New York. The Summit had originally been planned as an effort to keep children’s rights on the international agenda ‘because no one had anticipated that this would happen spontaneously’ (Cohen et al. 1996: 441).

Despite the reservations entered by many participating states, and notwithstanding the low level of interest in children’s rights and even opposition to the very idea of a separate human rights instrument for children, since the Convention came into force the field of international children’s rights law has proliferated. There are now over 100 instruments of international child law (Angel 1995; Saulle and Kojanec 1995; Van Bueren 1998), many of them legally binding.

International NGOs

Globalization has not only occurred at the level of increased international cooperation between states and increased financial flows. It has also involved a parallel shift below in both the movements of people and increased communication across national borders and the emergence of an incipient international civil society. The phenomenal growth in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating at the international level, or INGOs, is part of this emergent international civil society. International human rights law and particularly the Convention have played an important part in creating a role for INGOs and therefore stimulating their expansion.

In the UN Charter there is provision for consultation with NGOs. It has been claimed that this provision ‘has produced much of the international practice concerning NGOs, and the “rights” given to them’ (Breen 2003: 455). NGOs participated in the drafting of the Convention through their involvement with the Ad Hoc NGO Group on the Drafting of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (now the NGO group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child). It was through this group that ‘NGOs had a direct and indirect impact on this Convention that is without parallel in the history of drafting international instruments’ (Breen 2003: 457, citing Cantwell 1992). The Convention is also the only international human rights treaty that expressly gives NGOs a role in monitoring its implementation (Breen 2003: 457).

The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict

Despite the substantial role of NGOs in drafting the UNCRC and their success in getting a provision on the protection of children in armed conflict included (Cantwell 1992), Article 38 did not adopt a straight under-eighteen prohibition on children’s involvement in armed conflict.

The failure of the Working Group charged with drafting the UNCRC to extend children’s protection beyond that already made available in law (by the Protocols of the Geneva Convention) suggests that the UNCRC was not quite as unremittingly global as it is often portrayed. Signatories were not prepared to extend protection to children if it might undermine national defence. The reluctance on the part of some government representatives to extend protection to all under-eighteens was, as the UK representative demonstrated, due to reasons of military strategy since it would be ‘difficult in times of hostilities’ (cited in Sheppard 2000: 44). As Geraldine van Bueren, who was involved in the drafting of the Convention, has rightly commented, ‘the alarm bell ought to begin to ring when the majority of states negotiating a treaty on children’s rights are willing to risk giving children’s lives a lower priority than military feasibility’ (van Bueren 1994: 820).

The protection of children in armed conflict was raised at the first session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, where it was the main point of discussion. This discussion led to the adoption by the Commission on Human Rights of a Resolution to establish a Working Group to elaborate a draft Optional Protocol to the Convention (Breen 2003: 465). The meetings of this Working Group were attended by observers from NGOs, including Defence for Children International, the Friends World Committee for Consultation and the International Save the Children Alliance. The Quakers took an active role in the drafting process, ‘on an equal footing with state representatives and other international organizations, such as the ICRC’ (Breen 2003: 466). In 1998 the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers was formed. The Coalition had a Steering Committee of seven international human rights NGOs, including the International Save the Children Alliance, and links with UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Labour Organization. It was instrumental in the drafting of the Optional Protocol to the UNCRC on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. The Optional Protocol was intended to prohibit the use of people below eighteen years in armed conflict. This was not achieved, however, and the Optional Protocol, which came into force in 2002, prohibits the direct involvement of children (under eighteen) in armed conflict, but it does not prevent states from recruiting under-sixteens into the armed forces (non-state organizations are not allowed to recruit under-eighteens).

The Optional Protocol has improved the protection of children in armed conflict in relation to earlier international law – including the Protocols to the Geneva Convention that distinguished different levels of protection for different age groups and allowed the direct participation of children older than fifteen years in hostilities. However, the discussions in the drafting of the Optional Protocol show that there is far from global agreement on the age when childhood ends. The question ‘What is a child?’ is as pertinent for the drafters of international law, it would seem, as it is for social scientists.

The International Criminal Court – the protection of children against war crimes

If the Optional Protocol has improved the legal provisions for the protection of children in war, that has been no guarantee that even the signatories to the Optional Protocol have upheld it in practice. In 2002 the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) came into force. The Statute is legally binding on the 102 states who have agreed to be bound by it. It has jurisdiction over the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It is a court of ‘last resort’, which means that it does not try crimes that are being dealt with at the national level. Many of its provisions explicitly relate to crimes against children, including preventing the conception or birth for a group of people as representing an act of genocide (Article 6 (d)); forcibly transferring children of one group to another group (Art. 6 (e)); conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities (Art. 8 (2) (b) (xxvi), Art. 8 (2) (e) (vii)). The ICC obviously acts after the event and cannot therefore be said to protect children directly. However, in defining the recruitment of under-fifteens into armed forces as a war crime, and in extending the definition of child soldiers from direct participation in hostilities to include support services, it may lessen the risks for children of being recruited into the armed forces in future conflicts.

The International Labour Organization – ending child labour

The International Labour Organization (the ILO) is a tripartite organization of state representatives, workers and employers. It was established by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. The ILO quickly adopted several Conventions on children working. These early Conventions were not against all child labour, viewing some work, particularly apprenticeships, as a part of a child’s education. The ILO also excluded work within the family or in agriculture so long as this work did not prevent a child from attending school. In 1936 the ILO raised the minimum working age to fifteen. In 1973 Convention No. 138 Minimum Age was adopted. This applied to all young people, and it was the first time that the ILO committed itself to ‘achieving the total abolition of child labour’ (Hanson and Vandaele 2003: 99). A general Minimum Age of fifteen is qualified in the Convention for light work (thirteen years) and hazardous work (sixteen or eighteen years) or where the compulsory school leaving age is above fifteen, in which case the minimum age at which the child can legally work is also increased. Convention 138 is the least ratified of the ILO’s seven core conventions. In 2001 less than two thirds (107/175) of the ILO Member States had ratified the Convention, and none of the African and Asian Member States had done so (Hanson and Vandaele 2003: 113). The ILO adopted the Convention on the Eradication of the Worst Forms of Child Labour in 1999. It includes slavery, sex work, trafficking and any other work that endangers a child’s health or morals.


UNICEF – the United Nations Children’s Fund – was formed in 1946 to manage post-war reconstruction in Europe for children. Originally set up as an emergency fund (from which the still used acronym derives its name), in 1953 it became a permanent part of the UN. In 2002 the United Nations Special Session on Children adopted a resolution on ‘A World Fit for Children’, which included a Plan of Action on health, education, armed conflict, child labour, trafficking and sexual exploitation, combating HIV/ AIDS. UNICEF is funded by governments and through corporate sponsorship and fund-raising by national agencies (NGOs). Since 1988 it has had its own research arm, the Innocenti Research Centre.

Summary on international law

Historically, international law was intended to codify agreements between states about mutually agreed rules of conduct on international matters. International law has a long history. The Treaty of Westphalia, which is considered to be the beginning of the formation of a community of states, was signed in 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years War in Europe. It was only in the twentieth century that another body of law was formulated, and international actors were instrumental in drafting, implementing and monitoring this law. This body of law, called humanitarian and human rights law, is a product of globalization. It attempts to govern not only relations between states, as international law had previously done, but also relations between states and societies. The expansion of this field of law to children has been sporadic. I have noted that the first World Summit for Children in 1990 was organized to mark the adoption in 1989 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child because it was feared that the Convention would otherwise attract little interest and be merely symbolic, even sentimental. Human rights and humanitarian law in general, and in respect of children’s protection in particular, has been remarkable for the extent that it has involved, and sometimes been initiated by, non-governmental organizations.

The proliferation of international children’s rights legal instruments and the close involvement of NGOs are not, however, entirely without their problems. A key problem, for the purposes of this book, is that to construct a body of law to deal with ‘the child’ presupposes that there is universal agreement on what a child is and what children need to flourish. My review of the historical and social studies of childhood in this chapter demonstrates that an agreement across cultural and national borders about what children’s capacities and vulnerabilities are, and what states and societies should be morally or legally obliged to do for children, is far from assured.

In the following chapters I explore in more depth the tensions and contradictions between a global idea of childhood and the practices and concepts of childhood in diverse settings.

The organization of the book

The aim of this book is to examine this intersection between the local and the global by exploring how global processes and structures shape childhood in different domains of children’s lives and how in turn children have actively tried, and sometimes succeeded, in remaking ideas about childhood. This book is structured around the argument that a particular model of childhood, one that originates in contemporary Western ideas about what it means to be human and what differentiates children from adults, is being globalized through international instruments and global capitalism. This model of childhood constructs healthy childhood as one that orientates children towards independence rather than interdependence, towards school-based rather than work-based learning, and separates them from the wider forces of politics, economy and society. I call this model of childhood the ‘neo-liberal model’ because of the compatibility between liberal ideas that value independence, rational choice and autonomy, and the concept of childhood inscribed in this model.

In the following chapters I explore the tensions between this globalizing model of childhood and the circumstances of children’s lives and local conceptions of childhood and of children’s competencies, capacities and vulnerabilities. I do this through exploring how global flows and international structures press down on childhood in key domains of children’s lives (work, school and play), how children interact directly with the state in war and politics, and the strategies that children and their families deploy to make life possible in a globalizing world (migration). In the following chapters I expand on the role of the state, philanthropists and NGOs in the reshaping of childhood, and I return to these themes in the concluding chapter.

Recommended further reading

Aitken, S. C., R. Lund and A. T. Kjørholt (eds). 2008. Global Childhoods: Globalization, Development and Young People. Oxford and New York: Routledge.