Waksler & Dickens: Different, not less

Frances Chaput Waksler’s writings on the sociology of childhood have been a must for people interested in working with children for decades. Her article “Studying Children: Phenomenological Insights” (1986) is one of her most quoted texts. In it, Waksler encourages her readers to substitute the term “less” with “different.” Children as a category, she argues, are not less serious, less knowledgeable, less important than adults:

The distinction between adult and child may become irrelevant as we come to focus simply on varieties of knowledge. To say that children have different experiences from adults focuses on a researchable topic whereas the designations “more/less” clearly ground study on judgement. The very idea that experiences are cumulative might be set as problematic, for when are experiences constructed on those that go before and when are they “new” productions? To see children as less serious than adults is again to judge; to ask how children display seriousness is to set a research problem. To examine children’s part in day-to-day life is to ask questions not only about their nature but about their political position in the social world – what can they do and what are they allowed to do?

Waksler challenges readers to think about the bias of defining children in terms of what they cannot do. (E.g., they cannot be serious.) Her effort reminds me—once again—of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Specifically of a part in which Pip, the child protagonist, anxiously visits the house where his platonic love lives:

With what absurd emotions (for we think the feelings that are very serious in a man quite comical in a boy) I found myself again going to Miss Havisham’s, matters little here. Nor, how I passed and repassed the gate many times before I could make up my mind to ring. Nor, how I debated whether I should go away without ringing; not, how I should undoubtedly have gone, if my time had been my own, to come back.

Waksler’s and Dickens’s texts, though different in form, address similar concerns (and such parallelism might allow us to think about literary writing as kind of sociological study!). Those who are familiar with Dickens’s critique of “bringing up children by hand” (as Pip’s sister claimed to raise Pip) might find support in Waksler’s following statement:

Socialization takes for granted the adult common-sense assumption that children “need” to be brought up. I want to claim that the statement “children need to be reared, raised, etc.” is but part of a conditional statement of the form “children need to be reared, raised, etc. if they are to become adults just like us, if they are to support the world we’ve made, if they are to ‘outgrow’ or ‘get over’ their childish behavior.

Waksler’s conclusion (and perhaps Dickens’s own theory as well) suggests that children as children disrupt and challenge the adult taken-for-granted world. And, for that reason, are seen a political problem. [print_link] [email_link]

—Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Managing Editor

Different not less To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here.

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