Opinion Articles

Children and notions of ‘the future’

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In January 2015 media outlets reported that nurseries in Britain would be required to report toddlers at risk of extremism under the Prevent strand of the Government’s new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. This was widely criticised for turning nursery staff into ‘spies’, as well as being almost impossible to implement.

From government attempts to combat terrorism to terrorist groups themselves, the importance of children’s potential is recognised. In December 2014, the Taliban attacked an army-run school in Peshawar, Pakistan, killing 141 people, 132 of whom were children. From a range of very different political perspectives, adults view children as latent threats to their respective worldviews. They hold the belief that by harnessing, harming or, in the most extreme cases, killing children, it is possible to influence the future.

The cliché that ‘children are the future’ is true. Children are physical ‘carriers’ of potential; they are future adults, world leaders, decision makers. Their treatment as agents for change at times of conflict is certainly not new, as adults use children to visualise an apparently better post-conflict world. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Britain, Europe and beyond, adults have made use of children on an individual and collective level to imagine and promote their ideas about the future. Adults have both feared the possibility that children will form unorthodox opinions and embraced their potential as future-makers.

At the end of the Second World War in Britain, children were highly symbolic of a hopeful future and successful reconstruction; the nuclear family, at the heart of the welfare state, was seen as the route to securing the best possible start in life for children, and their welfare was linked to hopes of a future ‘great’ Britain. For example, many politicians were concerned about the low birth rate, suggesting this threatened Britain’s future. The Daily Mail reported Churchill saying in 1943 that ‘nothing will repay this country better than putting milk into babies’.

The end of war and a new future were also at the heart of the Vichy government’s vision of children during 1940-1944 in France. Both the objects and subjects of propaganda, images of children were everywhere, promoting the goals of the regime’s traditionalist reform programme known as the National Revolution. Earlier, in the wake of the Second African (Boer) War in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the booming popularity of toy soldiers and other militarily-inspired games and toys in Britain represented a particular shaping of childhood for future purposes. More than just playthings, they inculcated in children, especially boys, a sense of patriotism and jingoism – a lust for soldiering.

Childhood has not always been seen as a distinct and separate period in the life cycle, to which different rules apply. Before the mid-nineteenth century, children were considered to be different from adults principally because of their lesser strength and skills in the workplace – they were simply smaller adults. The latter part of the nineteenth century saw changes to education and workplace legislation that meant children stayed in school longer and started work at an older age. The twentieth century heralded further change: it was proclaimed ‘the century of the child’ by Swedish feminist and reformer Ellen Key in 1900, as well as by education experts and child rights activists. Across that century, a language and practice of child rights grew out of concerns over child mortality, health and safety, culminating in the 1989 UNICEF Declaration on the Rights of the Child. At the same time, civil society organisations concerned with children grew and expanded their activity, not least Save the Children and War Child. Today, our concern for children – our concern for the future – has never been greater.

Children are often perceived to remain outside politics. In their apparent innocence, they are clean of adult corruption, be it military, political, financial, sexual. Children are seemingly blank slates, existing in a state of readiness, onto which can be projected political and cultural notions of desired futures. There is a move in the West to involve children more in political processes, bringing them directly into political participation, through, for example, the European Youth Parliament, established in 1987, and allowing 16-year-olds to vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum.

But the politicisation of children occurs more often outside the political arena, where they are instrumentalised (or used) by adults to underpin political and cultural processes. Whether in the family, where children embody a family’s hopes for future prosperity and status, or at a more collective level, where they represent a new start for the nation at large. Thus while children are not usually political actors, they are political subjects whose key features are potentiality and vulnerability. This vulnerability is used by adults to force other adults to act; in the Second World War, for example, the future hopes of children were used to encourage adults to deposit money in National War Savings.

When Michael Gove attacked the school teaching of history because it failed to celebrate Britain and its empire’s achievements he demonstrated the highly political nature of education. In shaping curricula, governments and their advisors attempt to shape future societies by emphasising certain values that children will carry into the future. In parallel with the export globally of a liberal democratic concept of a ‘happy childhood’, children and parents have been subjected to the aggressive commercialisation of childhood. Recent challenges include the Pink Stinks and Let Toys Be Toys campaigns against the commercial impulse to shape children into highly specific gender moulds. History shows us that neither the manipulation of what schools teach nor the gendering of toys is new.

Children bear the burden of expectations of the societies in which they live. What consequences does this have for children themselves? Very few would argue with protecting the innocence of childhood and their rights. But does the use of children for political purposes also have negative consequences? These are the key questions of our research project, ‘Agents of Future Promise’. The concern about what to teach children, and the uneasiness we sometimes feel when faced with children as active participants rather than simply passive subjects of adult ideals, suggests that the ‘children are the future’ message is not just altruistic concern with children’s welfare. It is also about adults’ desire for control over the future.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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