Steven Mintz

Abstract: The Shifting Cultures of Childhood

Scholars who would never ignore class, ethnicity, gender, or geographical region in the study of childhood sometimes omit an equally significant variable: time. My presentation will underscore the importance of diachronic, dynamic, and longitudinal perspectives in understanding of children's cultures, the meaning making and expressive activities that include children's imaginative world, such as their folklore and humor; children's social relationships, including their friendships and interactions with peers; children's play, including games, sports, and computer and video games; and children's consumption of commercial popular culture, such as children's books, television shows, and movies.

The study of children's culture shifts the focus away from adult conceptions and representations of childhood to children themselves--to their voices, behavior, and experiences, and the role that they play in their own social, cognitive, physical, and moral development. Like youth culture, children's culture can be understood partly as a way to deal with certain stresses and structural contradictions in children's status--as a way to deal with feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, and dependence; as a form of resistance to adult standards of propriety; and as a way to meet create forms of affiliation separate and apart from the world of parents and other adults.

A declension model--which stresses the loss of older childhood rituals and pastimes, the corruption of children's innocence, and the colonization of children's imagination--tends to dominate popular thinking about children's culture. My presentation will challenge the declension model and suggest an alternative way to think about children's culture, a perspective that emphasizes an ongoing tension between adults and children over the content of children's culture worlds.

My presentation will place special emphasis on the subject of children and risk. I am less concerned with children who are "at-risk"--who are "troubled" or endangered"--than with children as risk-takers: who are creative, active makers of history, who step beyond the bonds of tradition, defy age restrictions, challenge accepted norms and institutions, and help create new cultural practices, values, and sensibilities. I am especially interested in the prolonged, on-going struggle between adult efforts to protect children from risk--by domesticating, regulating, supervising, and uplifting children's culture--and children's efforts to shape and control their own culture.