Scholars Contrast Childhood's Rhetoric, Reality

They claim treatment of kids is hypocritical. We say all kids need care, protection and education, but kids who commit crimes are prosecuted as adults, and kids who become parents are said to be responsible for most of the nation's social problems.

Janet Jakobsen

NEW YORK-Feminists and the best interests of children are often portrayed as opposing forces.

Not so, said some of the best-regarded scholars on the subject at a recent conference provocatively titled: "Feminists Against Childhood." What is at odds, these scholars said, are our country's expressed values of cherishing and protecting children and its actual public policies, foreign and domestic.

Though they are from different disciplines and do very different work, the speakers sounded a common theme: Current pro-child and pro-childhood rhetoric is rife with real-world contradictions and hypocrisies, particularly when it comes to the poorest and most powerless women and children.

If Kids Are So Deserving, Why Not Universal Health Care?

"Why is a country so interested in preserving children's health and protecting them against exploitation, so reluctant to provide universal health care, so timid to legislate against other forms of violence that children are subjected to-not to mention why so eager to draft them into the marketplace as consumers?" asked Janet Jakobsen, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, sponsor of the discussion. The center is based at Barnard College, one of the premier institutions of higher learning for women, and now affiliated with Columbia University.

"We must consider whether the effects of the presumptions about childhood are good for children," Jakobsen said, "or for adults, most especially the women who are charged first, last, and always with protection of childhood."

In the last decade, there has been a cultural demonization of poor black and Latina teen-age mothers on welfare that has completely eroded the perception of these girls as children, added Traci West, associate professor of ethics at Drew University and a fellow in the Women and Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School.

The first "tool" in that demonization process, West said, was the creation of an "epidemic," a "crisis," a "national emergency" of teen-age pregnancy during the 1990s.

That language laid the groundwork for public acceptance of the federal Personal Responsibility Act of 1996-the so-called welfare reform law. The opening section of the law describes out-of-wedlock births, welfare, poverty, crime and drugs as interlocking anti-social, criminal behaviors.

And, in President Clinton's first radio address of 1997, as he prepared to begin his second term, he told the nation there was no greater obstacle to progress than the "epidemic of teen pregnancy." He was saying, although not in so many words, that the sexual behavior of currently poor girls was the number-one problem stopping our country from achieving its goals in the 21st century, West said.

Traci WestThus, she argued, the rhetoric of the 1990s helped invent a "culture of anathema" that depicted poor young minority mothers not as innocent children but as obstacles to progress.

"When the President argues that the power to hinder the nation's progress rests primarily upon the sexual reproductive behavior of the most economically and socially disenfranchised group of girls," West said, "it immediately shifts your consciousness, erases the perception of teen-age mothers as children worthy of assistance and sets the stage for the cultural acceptance of initiatives like welfare ‘reform,' which deny public assistance to most of these teen-agers and their children."

Getting Tough on Crime Belies the Ideal of Helping Children

Ann Pellegrini, associate professor of women's studies at Barnard, focused on the treatment of minors in the American criminal justice system and argued that the current vogue of "getting tough on crime" has further eroded cultural notions of childhood. The juvenile justice system, a radical notion in the early 20th century, was based on the premise that children are essentially innocent, malleable and educable, and that they can be improved and helped to lead productive lives through kind, constructive treatment.

Citing Department of Justice statistics, Pellegrini said that, over the last decade, the number of juveniles, persons under 18, serving time in adult prisons has doubled, from 3,400 in 1985 to 7,400 in 1997. This trend of treating juveniles as adults in the criminal justice system undermines the entire premise of the juvenile justice system-that children are malleable and, therefore, susceptible to both bad influences (hence, the misguided criminal behavior) and rehabilitation.

"With all of this getting tough on crime and treating children as adults," Pellegrini asked rhetorically, "what is left of childhood?"

While not taking direct issue with West's statement about the negative cultural perception of poor teen-age mothers of color, Pellegrini argued that when it comes to sex and sexuality, as opposed to criminality, a stubborn belief in childhood innocence and purity persists.

In America, she said, we still insist on the sexual innocence of children and have an almost paranoid perception of children as vulnerable to adults and their sexual needs. The panic level rises exponentially, she observed, when children are exposed to cultural depictions of homosexuality.

In a dramatic example of this contradiction, Pellegrini cited the case of Sam Manzie, a New Jersey boy tried as an adult for molesting and murdering an 11-year-old neighbor, an act committed when Manzie himself was only 15.

After Manzie was under arrest for the murder, it was revealed that, at the time of the murder, he had been reluctantly gathering evidence for law enforcement authorities against an adult lover he had met over the Internet and, as a result, he was having extreme emotional difficulties.

The case is striking because, at the same time that Manzie was tried as an adult for the murder, he also was the chief prosecution "child" witness, legally incapable of consenting to sexual activity.

The speakers also explored the economic exploitation of children, particularly the campaigns against child labor and sweatshops.

If Child Labor Is Bad, Why Are Kid Consumers, Investors Good?

"If child laborers are bad," asked Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Avalon professor of the humanities at Columbia University, "why are child investors good?"

Gayatri Chakravorty SpivakThe moral outrage about child labor overseas is totally hypocritical, she suggested, "when confronted with the actual indifference that follows the dismissal of these children (from the labor force)," ostensibly to protect them and give them an education. But the quality of education for the most impoverished children in the poorest countries, she said, is abysmal, "little short of useless," an "empty promise" as a substitute for the opportunity to make money.

Spivak, a self-described socialist, said that industrialized countries such as the United States express outrage about child labor only because such cheap, exploited labor creates competition and threatens the jobs of their own protected adult workers-not because they truly care about the welfare of these unemployed child workers.

Moreover, Spivak charged, while poor children are being "protected" from factory work-often an economic mainstay for their families and countries-American children are being encouraged at a younger age than ever before to be consumers and even investors. Many middle class children, for example, are being taught to create their own financial portfolios.

"We are preparing our own children to be agents of exploitation in the financialization of the globe," Spivak charged, "while we stop their children overseas from being agents of production."

Barbara Raab is a writer and television producer in New York City who contributes regularly to NBC News and the website PlanetOut.