What is the cultural life of children and young people like today? Who makes the choices, who creates – and who finds themselves on the outside, looking in? On April 3-4, a conference on children’s culture in Umeå, organized by the Swedish Arts Council, addressed these questions. Karin Helander, professor of drama and head of the Centre for the Studies of Children’s Culture at Stockholm University, spoke on adult power and the child perspective:
Typically, we define children by what they are not: they are not adults. For the past twenty years, childhood researchers have looked at both children and adults using the concepts of “human becoming” and “human being.” Initially, they saw adults as “beings”: complete, finished people and citizens. Children were “becomings”: people and citizens in the making, moving toward completion; a development zone, lacking some critical element.
In the 1990s, this view changed. Children became “beings” too – citizens and people in their own right, with their own skills and abilities. Later, the picture was refined again. Children and adults were now both “beings” and “becomings”—competent, but still developing, citizens. Adulthood, just like childhood, was not static but variable.
Childhood researchers have stressed the fact that power, resources and decisions lie in the hands of adults. The professional production of culture and art is a prime example. Here, power resides almost entirely in the adult world. The grown-ups are in charge—we decide what gets produced and what gets consumed. Of course we often do so with the best of intentions, following our own ideas about children’s wellbeing.
The concept of a child perspective is frequently invoked; less frequently is it defined or problematized. In the field of children’s culture, we often make a distinction between a child perspective and a child’s perspective. A child perspective is an adult intention to focus on and draw attention to children’s circumstances. A child’s perspective involves trying to capture children’s experiences and perceptions, by recognizing them as valuable informants and listening to their voices.
The concept of the child perspective is also the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the articles there that address the welfare of children and their right to access culture and the arts, as well as their right to freedom of expression and to be heard on issues that affect them, according to age and maturity.
The meaning of children’s culture itself is also continually being discussed and redefined. According to one common definition, it includes:
- cultural products made by adults for children (children’s literature, children’s film)
- culture with children (an example is Swedish municipal schools for music and arts, kulturskolor)
- children’s culture, or culture by children (such as children’s play and children’s picture making)
The boundaries here are fluid and we could identify further distinctions or places where the categories overlap. In general, however, children’s culture is strongly colored by the adult world: adults’ interpretative prerogative, their values and norms. Professionally produced culture for children originates with adults and carries their intentions: its purpose is often educative, and/or it intends to entertain and amuse, and/or it is designed as a high-quality artistic statement. We might also expand children’s culture to include young adult art and literature, also produced by adults, which children readily partake of.
Author Ulf Stark has raised the issue of quality in children’s literature, asking questions like:
- Do you have to be extra good to be a good children’s author?
- Should a children’s book make children happy and content – and get them to sleep at night as fast as possible?
- Is reading a literary text different from other reading?
- Is it a good idea to mark books so we can see from the outside whether they’re easy or hard?
- Do we really understand what “understanding” means?
- If children read bad books, is that a good thing?
- Demanding less, leveling out the language – a nifty prescription for improving reading skills? Or perhaps not? Or is it?
Stark also questions the notion of reading comprehension, that we need to understand what we read: “Some of the poems that have meant the most to me, I’ve never really understood. I don’t even always understand what I write myself. Requiring us to understand things makes us seize up. Reading is embracing the unknown.”
And here I would like to add a quotation from another author, though she usually writes for adults: Kristina Lugn, whose character Axel concludes the play Hjälp sökes (Help needed) with these words: “In my opinion, understanding is for weaklings. People have always been, and should remain, a mystery.”