If you look back through the history of childhood, you’ll quickly note that the definition of childhood is an ever-changing thing. It’s not just that children’s lives were different in the past than they are today, but it’s also that societies view the whole stage we call childhood differently. These views or lenses through which we’ve seen children include “the victim,” “the innocent,” “the knowing child,” “the child as consumer,” among others… And the way societies define or see children and childhood had a direct impact on the way they cared for children and prepared them for adulthood – so it’s no surprise that the whole approach to these timeless tasks has also undergone evolution and in some cases, revolution, from generation to generation.
While children used to be seen as merely incomplete adults who needed to be tamed and civilized into adulthood, we now see childhood as a stage in and of itself – worthy of study, focus and respect. And to take it further, we now see “youth” as preschoolers, kids, tweens, (thank marketers for that contribution to the lingo related to childhood studies) teens and the newest moniker for the college and young twenties set, “emerging adults.”
But do we have consensus on how we view children today? If we had to take a stand, we would say that the “empowered child” is probably our default lens today – at least for marketers, program developers and organizations that work with children. In fact, we bristle even as we write “children,” which connotes vulnerability in comparison to “kid,” which implies a being with a bit more spunk. We often fight against the notion that today’s youth can’t decide for themselves, and we celebrate the independent spirit of today’s youngest generation.
If we accept the notion that the lens through which we see childhood is a product of a broader social sentiment or reality, we find ourselves looking for the drivers behind this notion. For sure, many critics of consumerism would attribute (or blame) marketers for promoting the idea that kids, tweens and teens can decide for themselves. They are discerning consumers who require information and exposure to new products and ideas in order to exercise their purchase power or their influence with confidence and effectiveness. But we also need them to be empowered. With 66% of families with children under the age of 18 having two working parents, and over 40% of births today occurring to single parents, we encourage maturity and a sense of agency like never before. Economists and educators also play a role…They talk about the need for more 21st century skills in classrooms, which include such independent and self-directed capabilities as “creativity and innovation.” In many after-school organizations and classrooms today, teaching entrepreneurship is on leaders’ minds, if not already in the curriculum.
At the same time that many would agree that today’s kids are more empowered than ever, it’s not easy to find evidence that the notion of the child in need of protection is still part of our collective conscious. Children’s advertising and food are more regulated than ever. Today’s children rarely leave the house without their bike helmets or their car seats (not that this is extreme!). And, while today’s youth have more media and information choices than ever before, we also have more heated dialogue about what’s good and not so good for youth in these regards.
So is this just history repeating itself? Whenever society has “agreed” on a lens for childhood, we know that there have been many who argue that this lens doesn’t apply to all. The “rule” that today’s kids are empowered certainly doesn’t fit the bill for many children in the U.S., and of course it leaves out many children globally. And there is and will always be a group who challenges the norm and mainstream beliefs – regardless of what those beliefs are.
At the risk of ending this blog with more questions than answers, we’re left questioning, does our lens on childhood today match the lived experience of youth in the U.S. or elsewhere? And if it doesn’t, how should we be viewing the lives of today’s kids, tweens and teens?
Without forwarding a new moniker or a new absolute view, we think one solution is simpler than it seems…Rather than relying on easy labels, we need to be listening and observing. And of course, we need to be open to new ways of seeing youth that exist somewhere between empowered and in need of protection – where youth really live.