A Collective Notion of Childhood?

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry’s statement about childhood in the United States has inspired a flurry of op-ed writers and political commentators to weigh in (see Slate, The New York Times, and Salon.com).  Her comment?

We have never invested as much in public education as we should have. We haven’t had a very collective notion of, these are our children. We have to break through our private idea that children belong to their parents, or children belong to their families, and recognize that children belong to whole communities. Once it’s everybody’s responsibility and not just the household’s, we start making better investments.

Conservative pundits have decried Harris-Perry’s attack on the nuclear family.  Rush Limbaugh responded: “This is Marx, Mengele, communist manifesto, the nuclear family has always been under attack by communists, leftists. The nuclear family, just like religion, must be destroyed, and in its place the community, the collective.”  Liberal pundits have responded, arguing that as a society, it essential that work together for the general good, which, in this case, means supporting children to become educated members of society.  As KJ Dell’Antonia, writer for The New York Times blog Motherlode, argues:

Most Americans, most politicians, most pundits would surely agree that if America is going to invest in anything, it should be our children and their future. Few would suggest that children aren’t a part of our communities, or don’t merit our support. It’s how to provide that support and investment that we disagree on, and that disagreement needs airing and discussion for there to be any change.

But when even the suggestion that we could make better collective investments in our youth can become a flashpoint for the rhetoric of division, the conversation about how we can better support families and care for our children becomes one we’re even less likely to have.

And, in a spirit of full disclosure, I agree with Dell’Antonia, for the most part.  Children are an integral part of our community and deserve care and respect.  Too often, children’s issues are deemed family issues, which are, in turn, classified as personal or individual issues, and then are either side-stepped or ignored.  Or children’s issues (and notions of childhood) become so mired in debate that change is almost impossible.

However, there is one question, which I think has been neglected, that should be part of the conversation.  Namely: whose collective notion of childhood?

Certainly all of us would agree that children’s well-being is important.  Children should have access to adequate nutrition, healthcare, and education.  But what about issues of faith?  Or ethics?  Or culture?  What would a collective ‘American’ notion of childhood look like (see also James & Prout, 1997Lareau, 2011; Tobin, et al., 1991)?  I don’t have an answer to these questions.  But I do think that they are ones that should be asked.  Moreover, we must be especially careful not to abandon our collective responsibility as a society because we cannot agree.

Update: Beatrice from “The Poland Passage” wrote a great piece on communal responsibility and childhood in Poland.  It makes an interesting counterpoint to some of the media surrounding collective notions of childhood in the U.S.


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