Escaping the “Adult Gaze”

Maynes, Mintz, and Stearns

The first three readings seem to collectively address how contemporary society has been able to shape how childhood and its’ history is looked at. Maynes begins emphasizing the importance of first-hand life stories and accounts in the history of childhood (and in her case women, too). So few sources actually come from children that it leaves their stories up to be subjectively told. Maynes then leads nicely into the Mintz reading by describing how the forming of one’s identity is “rooted” in childhood. In one of the most eye-opening passages of the three articles, Maynes quotes Kath Weston in regards to gender on page 21:”Talk to someone in the United States about gender for more than twenty minutes and you’re likely to walk away with a childhood story.” This quote complements the Mintz reading nicely because Mintz essentially compares and contrasts age and gender as categories of history. What is masculine or feminine? What should a child’s responsibilities entail at a certain age? The answers to these questions are culturally and socially constructed and defined–simply unnatural as Mintz argues.┬áStearns finally delves into one of these norms that have been built up by society over the years–“the innocent child” and the idea that all children should be happy. Is this notion of happiness the lone and most construed aspect of childhood? No; Stearns concludes that parents being morally obligated to make their child’s childhood one of happiness is “only one among many factors shaping childhood in recent decades, and a challenge for further analysis is to figure out how it interacts with other influences.” Most of said influences being formed not by the children of the time period, but by the culture engulfing them.

Wilson and Pascoe

Wilson and Pascoe set out to critique the past historiography on children and childhood. Wilson specifically dealing with Philippe Aries and Pascoe centering on the more recent work on the children of Australia. The biggest problem Wilson has with Aries is his “present centeredness” approach, “the condition of viewing the past exclusively from the point of view of the present.” Through all his scrutiny, Wilson does not condemn Aries, but simply states that his argument is not false, but falsely conceived. After all, Wilson and Pascoe seem to agree, Aries book was essentially the first stage in the study of a new field. Wilson’s views on Aries’ “present-centeredness” poses a question. Isn’t every single human being naturally present-centered in some capacity? I understand where Wilson is coming from, but no matter what he writes, he did in fact write in the present.

Pascoe has different causes for concern with the historiography of children. He mentions the lack of sources authored by children themselves; a theme eminent throughout our entire week’s readings. He also describes the tendency amongst adult authors to romanticize children, and even get sentimental in their writing. All adults, historians included, tend to look back on childhood happily, and it hinders their writing. What solution, if any, does Pascoe recommend? He proposes “that we can enrich our historical research by borrowing insights from other disciplines,” chiefly material culture, archaeology, folklore, geography, and oral history. Pascoe writes my favorite quote in the reading when stating the utilization of these outside, yet similar, disciplines will lead to “the recovery of children from the scrapheap of the past.”

Davin and Rhodes

Davin and Rhodes provide a nice conclusion for this week’s readings. They both discuss useful sources for the study of childhood, but each author emphasizes a different variety. Davin delves into concrete sources–four in specific. These sources are school records, voices of authority (the privileged), voices of the working class, and her “jigsaw strategy.” Her jigsaw strategy kind of ties in with the Pascoe reading in that the jigsaw strategy pieces together clues from different sources, casting “a wide net.” This allows for the “steady accumulation of snippets, anecdotes, references, and examples; the piling up of details, which allows closer understanding.”

Rhodes is similar in that she emphasizes the importance of examining all varieties of sources. The difference is that for Rhodes, the sources she is referring to are experiences. Like many of the authors we we have just read, Rhodes believes that the history of childhood and the role of children in society are “too often defined by perceptions of adults.” She proposes that we, as historians, “explore the range of experiences and environments in which the child operated and engaged with in the adult world.” What I found most interesting is Rhodes’ opinions on photographs as sources. Though she admits their importance, one cannot rely that heavily on them because they are often under “adult gaze.” Photos are rarely, if at all, taken by children themselves, which reinforces the fact that the history of childhood is too often seen through the eyes of adults. I do believe that Rhodes is on to something, but I also believe studying experiences has its’ limitations. I’m sure that one would be able to find some first hand accounts, but wouldn’t that pool of sources be fairly limited? Even when analyzing these first hand accounts, wouldn’t many of the risks associated with other more subjective sources still remain? A blend between the strategies presented by both Davin and Rhodes–and all of the seven authors for that matter–is what is necessary to have any shot at recovering the history of childhood.