“Childhood” at the Margins

I nearly cried when Netflix sent me an email announcing that season three of Louie was available. Louie is one of very few television series that genuinely piques my interest. In all of its offbeat, melancholic and twisted Woody Allen-esque humor, Louie speaks to the many matters of contention that lay in the American social sphere. Louis C.K., the show’s creator and lead character, has an intriguing, almost philosophical approach to comedy. C.K. acknowledges the privilege afforded by his own pale skin and red hair, which, despite his Mexican heritage, make people perceive him as white. After all, identity is partly physical, right? I find C.K.’s candor and ability to use comedy as a means of picking apart his privilege compelling. For instance, in an episode from season three, C.K. discusses how parents in America hesitate to talk to their children about war and death while in places such as Afghanistan, children do not have to be told about the atrocities of war because it is all around them. How incredibly poignant. This seemingly insignificant joke had a profound affect on my perceptions of what it means to be a child. Questions about “childhood” began to crowd my brain. What is childhood, exactly? What does it mean to be a child living in America?

In the United States, the concept of childhood goes beyond pure biology and extends itself to both the social and legal realms. We have made attempts to distinguish adulthood from childhood, but at times these distinctions are not always clear. “Adulthood,” for instance, refers to the age at which one is held legally responsible for oneself, and is allowed to engage in adult activities and contracts. Nevertheless, determining the dawn of authentic adulthood in the US is nuanced, as there are different age limits for activities such as voting, drinking, driving, and giving consent to engage in sexual acts. From a legal standpoint, adulthood in the US is gradual, as adolescents do not assume all the rights of a US citizen overnight.

From a social standpoint, it seems that the distinction between adulthood and childhood in the US is defined not only in terms of physical and psychological development, but also in terms of innocence, lack of exposure or experience, and promise and potential. These legal and social distinctions we have created dictate what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable for “adults” and “children.”

One could argue that “childhood” in the US is merely a socially constructed identity that consequently affords and denies certain rights and protections to people assigned the label “child.” These rights include but are not limited to: protection from perceived danger or anything presumed developmentally inappropriate such as physical labor; dependence on an adult for necessities and desirables; a worry-free existence, with an abundant amount of sacred time for playing, imagining and exploring. These tend to be the ideals we uphold in the quintessential American childhood narrative, when in fact, not every child in this country has access to these so-called rights. It seems that our beliefs regarding childhood are vastly shaped by pervasive white middle-class values.

Are the American children who are denied access to these “rights” then denied a “true” childhood?  Do these children, then, have a lesser quality childhood because their stories do not align with the emblematic stories of American nostalgia for childhood?  Or is it possible that we can create a new American childhood narrative by encompassing a myriad of cultural, economical and social experiences and values?

In recent years, I have come to discover that many of my friends and family members have experienced at least one “come to Jesus moment” somewhere in between their late-twenties and their early-fifties. This is the moment when “adults” come to terms with their “childhood.” It typically occurs when we face ourselves in the mirror and feel an utter disdain for the reflection. Then, all of a sudden, traumatic experiences from our childhood bubble to the surface of our memories. We begin questioning the quality of our respective childhoods. We dissect our parents’ rearing or lack of rearing practices through a critical and entitled lens. This is the point where we characterize our “childhood” as being good or bad. The determination to label one’s “childhood” as good or bad occurs when said “childhood” is held in comparison to American normative ideals. We buy into notions of having had a bad “childhood” because we are products of a single-family household as opposed to having grown up in a nuclear family unit. These are the thoughts I find myself constantly wrestling with in regards to my own upbringing.

In sixth grade, I can recall learning about what life was like before child labor laws existed. Children were considered integral contributors to the overall wellbeing of their households. I remember reading somewhere that children in the Middle Ages were considered small adults. To a certain extent, those stories did not seem far off from the experiences of many of the poor Black kids I knew growing up on the South Side of Chicago. Some of my peers were their own parents as well as their siblings’ parents. Some had to fend for and protect themselves. Even in my own childhood, I was exposed to many aspects of life that many would categorize as inappropriate for a child. Looking back on my childhood, there are certainly things that I wish were more like an episode of Full House than an episode of The Wire, however, I have come to realize that my childhood experiences were valid and they belong in the greater dialogue of what it means to be a child in America.

This does not necessarily mean that I had a bad childhood. If anything, the way in which I was brought up may have been necessary to prepare me for circumstances and adversities I would face as an adult. It seems that maybe childhood is simply preparation for adulthood. In this case, is a child with more responsibility and exposure to the ills of the world more prepared to handle the challenges of adulthood?

As life would have it, I am now a teacher in an area not too far from where I grew up. It is nothing short of remarkable that I ended up back in the very place I wanted so desperately to get away from. I returned to everything I tried to escape: poverty, violence, and the South Side. In my career as a public school teacher on Chicago’s South Side, I find myself in a place between two worlds. I was once in the shoes of my students, Black and from a low-income family. Now I find myself in the shoes of my college-educated, middle-class white colleagues, well, with the exception of still being Black. I sometimes cringe when I overhear the teachers’ lounge chatter humming in the air like bees in the summertime. It is almost always regarding the nature of our school and our students. I have heard comments such as “Let’s put on a Christmas play! Ya know, like the ones in real school!” While I am left to assume my colleagues mean no harm, the South Side Black girl in me finds their statements incendiary. To them, my school experience and the experiences of our students are inferior and not what “real” children in “real” schools experience. Perhaps my colleagues’ opinions about “real” school also extend to their thoughts regarding a “real” childhood. Embarrassingly enough, I sometimes find myself falling into a similar pattern of thinking as I move up income brackets and social circles.

In this post-No Child Left Behind Era, millions of dollars are being spent in “inner city” schools to teach poor Black and Latino kids middle-class values. Poor Black and Latino kids are implicitly— and to a certain extent explicitly— being told that their childhood is not a “real childhood.” They are being taught that although they may not have access to a “real childhood” they can get an education and move out of their communities in order to provide their future children with a “real childhood.”

At times, I find myself blaming poverty or even blaming parents for the circumstances facing many poor minority children throughout America. Yet, on the other hand, I know better. I know that the stories and experiences of poor children, of minority children, of immigrant children, of LBGTQ children and all children are valid. However, when I revisit my own childhood memories, there is a sense of guilt, a sense of shame and a yearning for a do-over that is informed by the normative and capitalist narrative of childhood. I imagine what my adult life could have manifested if only I had access to the perceived “rights” of the American middle-class child. Perhaps it is this constant state of childhood nostalgia and pining over the American childhood dream that keeps adults like myself from fully understanding and accepting that the notion of childhood is fluid. Ideas regarding childhood are constantly evolving. There is no such thing as a perfect childhood. There should never be one dominant interpretation of what it means to have a “true” childhood because every society has different expectations and roles for children and adults. Unfortunately, in the United States, our history of injustice and the prevalence of white dominance preclude the expansion of what counts as “childhood.”

It is my hope that we can begin to examine childhood through a new lens. We should accept all childhood experiences as being valid and withhold biased Western beliefs. In order to arrive at a place where all children are valued, included, and treated fairly, we must re-envision and reconceptualize the dominant childhood narrative. We must recognize that there is no one precise way to raise a child, be a child or interact with a child. If children are merely adults in waiting, it only makes sense that we combat theses constricted definitions of childhood so that future adults can exist in a more socially just world.