“Manufactured Childhood”

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

In his book Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich takes issue with the way that children are treated. In Chapter 2, “Phenomenology of School,” Illich writes,

Illich, Deschooling Society

His thoughts about childhood in relation to school have really stayed with me, especially as a result of the pandemic. Making society “livable for the young” takes on a whole new meaning when we’re talking about a deadly disease. Yet decisions to reopen schools (or keep them open, as has been the case for many this whole time) were made completely without the people who primarily use them: children. Putting aside the usual lack of input children are allowed, it’s their lives that were put at risk, and they couldn’t even say no.

Even when children are allowed to participate, their “choices” are essentially to regurgitate what adults have told them to want. One of the classroom management techniques I was taught was to have the children help to create the classroom rules at the beginning of the school year. They’ll have buy-in to rules they make themselves, I was told. But of course the rules aren’t actually the children’s rules. They’re adult rules that the children have been taught to make their own. So as a third grade teacher, the kids I had were simply repeating what had been taught to them about proper behavior in their schooling beforehand.

As a result, all the rules conformed to what I would have said anyway. There was nothing on our list that looked like a child might have thought of it themselves, and if they had the sense to try- say, someone suggesting “Recess is an hour long- I had the ultimate veto.

Children can’t work, they can’t talk back, they’re legally subjected to physical abuse, they can’t sign contracts, on and on and on. They are subject to life-and-death authority, yet are given no say in who wields that authority or how. We deny them the right to participate in most aspects of every day, self-sufficient life, unless they’re saying what we want them to say. Then we celebrate them and marvel over them, but nope, you still can’t vote. The only reason this state of affairs persists is because of age restrictions.

I think about this in regards to my own son alot. I had a much more authoritarian approach to my son in his younger years, but at this point I pretty much let him do whatever he wants. I’m trying to navigate the ground between preparing him for a do-as-your-told world, while realizing that I don’t really like telling him what to do, and I don’t like other people telling him what to do either. Teachers don’t know shit, and I know that from personal experience. Parents don’t know shit either. Maybe I should just let this kid figure it out on his own, his own way.

But “manufactured childhood,” the state of essential helplessness that 0-18 year olds face, stands in the way of every child living their life they way they want to. I think all adults, especially parents and teachers, need to take a step back and realize that force, disempowerment and fear are the only ways we keep children dependent on us for so long. That’s not really a way I want to live my life anymore.

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