In an article titled “Studying Children: Phenomenological Insights” (1986), sociologist Frances Waksler complained about people not taking children seriously. She wanted others to see that children’s actions can “constrain, facilitate, encourage and in myriad ways have implications for others, adults in particular.” To illustrate her point, Waksler provided the following example:
Adults are known to “make” children eat their vegetables, but less noticeable is that children “make” adults eat their vegetables if those adults are to claim they are being good “models.” Can we say that children “make” adults watch their language, follow rules more carefully, bring their talk and action into closer consistency? “Make” may be a trifle strong, but something is going on here.
Her example serves two points: an abstract one and a concrete one. On the one hand, these children may be thought of not as specific children, but as the idea of children in people’s minds. It is the concept of children—as apprentices—that constrain adults’ behavior. (What are we teaching our future?) Waksler, however, comes back to the agency of real children:
How do adults alter their behavior in the presence of children? Do children in some sense have power over adults and, if so, what kind of power is it and how does it operate? That children can learn at rather young ages how to play adults against one another, can know whom to ask first for the necessary permissions, can “test” adults to see what limits exist, suggest a certain use of power that is not routinely acknowledged as such in everyday life – these children’s strategies are known to adults but their implications for children’s competence seem to be submerged in the general assumptions about children’s (in)abilities.
Waksler had important reasons to be dissatisfied with her contemporaries, and to demand that children be taken seriously. Thirty years ago, children’s acts were interpreted through limited psychological, developmental and socialization theories that minimized their will and power. Today people seem to try harder to understand children in their own terms (e.g., by using “adult” concepts to explore children’s activities and applying “child” concepts to adult activities.) But Waksler’s example is still relevant. It expands our understanding of the roles people play.
—Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Deputy Editor
To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here.
“Studying Children: Phenomenological Insights,” Human Studies 9: 71-82 (1986).
Ms. Waksler likes gardening. The photograph of the “Two story climbing rose” is from her website. The image includes the following note, which could provide an interesting metaphor about the way certain beings shape others: “After I planted the white rose, and it was established and 5 feet tall, I realized that it was growing outward instead of inward against the porch where I wanted it. At what at the time I thought of as a bit of madness, I dug it up and turned it around. Despite my fears, it thrived.”