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Reviewed by:
  • The Children’s Culture Reader
  • Elizabeth Harper
The Children’s Culture Reader. Ed. Henry Jenkins. New York: New York UP, 1997. 532 pp.

The myth of childhood innocence provides a convenient symbolic justification for competing political agendas. Such phrases as “for the sake of the children,” “for our children’s future,” and “for the protection of the innocent children” are used to justify government spending cutbacks, media censorship, and government intrusions into private lives. You can advocate and promote just about anything and appear noble if you claim to be doing it in the interests of innocent children. Jenkins’s introduction to The Reader starts by documenting how politicians, both Democratic and Republican, have recently tried to support their political agendas by referencing children. While childhood and children as symbols are made into political battlegrounds on which ideological wars are waged, individual children are presumed to be apolitical and pre-social. Children have been robbed of any acknowledgment of their political agency by the myth of their innocence.

The goal of The Children’s Culture Reader is to reject “the myth of childhood innocence in order to map the power relations between children and adults . . . The essays . . . [are] about childhood, about how our culture defines what it means to be a child, how adult institutions impact on children’s lives, and how children construct their cultural and social identities” (Jenkins 3). The essays represent perspectives from various disciplines including history, psychoanalysis, sociology, and media studies. The excerpt “From Immodesty to Innocence” taken from French historian Philippe Aries’ classic Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life explains the development of the concept of childhood innocence and the philosophical, moral, religious, and pedagogical agenda behind its implementation and maintenance in France. Other articles on the history of childhood include “Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood” by Karin Calvert, and “From Useful to Useless: Moral Conflict over Child Labor” by Vivian A. Zelizer. “Seducing the Innocent: Childhood and Television in Postwar America” by Lynn Spigel documents the history of concern over children and television. In Foucauldian terms, childhood is something adults maintain through disciplinary power—governance, surveillance and restriction of children’s knowledge of the adult world. As children gain more knowledge of the adult world through the television, power relations are challenged. Also excellent is Joe L. [End Page 201] Kincheloe’s critique of our society’s current treatment of children in “The New Childhood: Home Alone As a Way of Life.” Provocative and insightful, “Child Abuse and the Unconscious in American Popular Culture” by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Howard F. Stein puts the current public preoccupation with individual cases of child abuse in the context of the social policies that effectively put children at risk. These are acts of government-instituted violence against children and the poor, which are usually ignored in the sensationalized media coverage of individual incidents of child abuse. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s excellent “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay” examines the governmental and psychiatric assault on gay and lesbian kids and teenagers and is especially important reading for those interested in queer studies and activism. There are also articles on children’s creative use of writing, television, Barbie dolls, and story-telling. Through the example of kets, inexpensive candy coveted by English children, Allison James in “Confections, Concoctions, and Conceptions”examines children’s ability to create their own culture based on what is deemed distasteful by adults. Some issues I would have liked to see discussed are abortion; school-shootings; nanny scapegoating; and the political agendas of various childrearing discourses.

Also included is a sourcebook of short excerpts from childrearing texts. These are dated documents. Nothing of the current and varied childrearing literature (behaviorist, Adlerian, neurobiological, Piagetian, temperament-based, spanking, no spanking) is included. This is an unfortunate omission. The discussions in the book risk making childrearing practices seem too homogenous at any one time—as if everyone went from cold behaviorist, to permissive and child-centered, to conservative backlash at the same time. Certainly in American culture there are various practices and trends at work at any one time. The most interesting item from the sourcebook is...

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pp. 201-202
Launched on MUSE
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