Images Of Childhood

Until 4 November 2007 there is an exhibition in London called The Changing Face of Childhood: British Children’s Portraits and their Influence in Europe.  It is being held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21.  And for those engaged with children, whether professionally as teachers, social workers, pedagogues, paediatricians, or informally as parents, grandparents and friends, this provides an opportunity to stand back and rethink what we mean by the ideas of children and childhood.

In this context it is interesting to note that changes in our contemporary understanding of childhood can be dated from the seminal work, Centuries of Childhood by Philippe Aries in 1962, that relied for most of its evidence on an analysis of representations of children in mediaeval European art.  His basic thesis was that childhood (as a separate state from adulthood) is a social construct and was invented during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Whatever we make of this particular theory, it has provided much impetus for thinking about childhood that has burgeoned ever since, and is thriving at this very point in time.

In the UK there is, for example, an inquiry into what is meant by a ‘Good Childhood’, and much related activity in statutory and voluntary services.  Underlying much of the media reporting and comment on children and young people is a fundamental idea that children are innocent and youth are anything but (for example ‘hooligans’ and ‘yobs’).  It is difficult to have any kind of reasonable or meaningful debate when tempers are frayed and accusations resound.  So perhaps it is pictorial representations of children in the peace and quiet of art galleries that are best placed for the sort of sustained and considered reflection and analysis that the topic so desperately requires.

Such exhibitions are by their very nature unlikely to be representative of all children and every kind of art.  They inevitably tend to focus on the children of the wealthy and stylised portraits as requested by the sponsors of the paintings.  And the voices of children about themselves are usually muted if not silent.  But it is in the very process of stopping to reflect about the meaning of such simple words and concepts that art has something vital to teach us.

We are/were all children

Children are universal.  Whereas not everyone in the world is male (or female), elderly, disabled, African, poor and so on, everyone either is, or was, a child.  There is in the normal course of things no one on earth who has not lived as a child and lived in contact with other children.  There may be debates about how much it is possible for the rich to understand the realities of the lives of the poor, and males the consciousness of women, but in the case of children, we are all subjects as well as objects of any enquiry.  So we might assume that we all know what we mean when we talk of children.  It is taken for granted and so obvious that further thought may be deemed redundant or arcane.

And yet this is precisely the point: because we are – or were – all children, we have great difficulty getting outside childhood, standing apart from it as it were, in order to strip ourselves of what we take for granted and to see ourselves afresh and in a new light. So art assists us at exactly the point in the process of reflection where we most need help.  It means that we can stand at some distance from ourselves and our personal experiences and assumptions in order to study constructions of childhood.  Whether we find representations of ourselves or children portrayed like us is arguably not as important as the very process of disengaging from life in order to consider a subject from a different viewpoint.

What is childhood?

I have not yet visited this exhibition, although I have read about it and intend to go.  Until I do, I think it would be best not to try and second-guess what I might find.  But I have done a considerable amount of thinking about children and childhood, living among children and young people on a daily basis, teaching sociologies of childhood and child cultures, and studying in particular understandings of childhood in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  The one emerging discovery is that what seems to be so obvious and simple, “We all know what children are”, is in fact so complicated.  How can we know what children are?  Do we draw from our own experiences and the ‘child within’?  Do we observe children and try to know their thoughts?  Do we ask children to tell us, at the risk of undermining the very essence we are trying to discover?  Can we assume a universal childhood or are there many different childhoods in post-modern consciousness?

My own sense is that children confront us with a profound mystery and that we can never accurately describe what they are and what we might mean by childhood.  You might say that this doesn’t get us very far, but I would beg to differ.  To acknowledge that you are confronted by a mystery and don’t know everything there is to know about something is a good starting point for relating to that something, and to reflecting about it.  It preserves a person or organisation from rushing in determined to intervene for a child’s good, without adequately considering what motivates the desire to intervene and the belief that it must be in the child’s good.  It pushes us to study John Locke’s Some thoughts concerning Education (1693) and Rousseau’s Emile (1762), as well as the work of others who realised the inherent mystery (paradox is a good word here too) in childhood.

And it encourages us to be ready to notice and receive from children as active agents rather than simply to teach them or care for them, to keep them safe and so on.  There is a basis for healthy respect.

Opening eyes

I am not expecting you to agree with Aries, Locke or Rousseau, but I do hope that if you are able to go to this exhibition it might just open your eyes (and mine) to aspects of childhood that we had previously missed, and help to throw new light on children and our relationships (personal and institutional) with them.

For now I am packing for our Mill Grove summer holiday in North Wales, 250 miles away from London, where I will have the privilege of exploring Snowdonia yet again in the presence of thirty or so children and young people.  Some of them, as it happens, are doing some drawings for me just now, and we are planning to do some slate etching while there. (Slate is a common material in the area).  I doubt if the subject will be children and childhood, but looking at what they draw and how they see things gives me fresh understandings of their take on the world.  And I have learnt never to be surprised at their fresh wonder in contrast to my adult-cluttered way experiencing creation.  It means I won’t get to Dulwich until September.  If you get there before me, do let me know what you think.

Any reader who has visited the exhibition is welcome to send a comment here.

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