The role of children in society differs across the globe, and has altered over time, as has our perception of it. Although it would be inaccurate to say that each field that looks at children and childhood has one view, we can generally say that each field has contributed different perspectives to the field. In the majority world, and especially after World War II, those working from a Western biomedical model saw children as inherently vulnerable and at risk for abuse, neglect, and exploitation (See Hinton, 2008; Lansdown, 2005; Woodhead, 2004). While these are legitimate concerns for the wellbeing of children, this tends to portray children as passive victims. Developmental psychology employing a stage theory of development tied children’s competency to chronological age, conjecturing that children became less vulnerable and better able to contribute their thoughts, perspectives, and actions towards society as they grew older (Reddy & Ratna, 2002). Developmental psychologists who took more of a Vygotskian approach saw child development as being spurred by their interaction with people and their environment (Bronfenbrnner, 1979). This perspective was mutually reinforced by the contributions of anthropologists and sociologists of childhood who saw a prominent role in how the context of the child’s development impacted the skills they needed and acquired for their survival and wellbeing in the context of their adulthood (Bissell, Boyden, Cook & Myers, 2008; Rogoff, 2003). Sociologists pointed out the role not only of the social and cultural environment as it impacted the child’s development, but also how children have a transactional effect on their environments (James and Prout, 1997). This spawned what is now called the “New Sociological Study of Childhood” that champions the agentic perspective, seeing children as agents in their lives (James, Jenks & Prout, 1998).
This turn in the study of children and childhoods was seen as a major shift, from seeing children as dependent and in need of protection, to children as agentic actors in their own lives and in the co-construction of their worlds. More recent analyses critiquing the debate between protection and agency recognizes that the over reliance on the concept of agency obscures other forces at play (Ansell, 2009; Kulynych, 2001; Raby, 2012). Just as a protection focus downplays the role of children in affecting their own lives, the focus on agency then obfuscates the role of larger social, political, economic and cultural forces that impact upon the transactional relationship between the child and his or her environment of development. Moreover, the agentic perspective is used as the basis driving towards conceiving children as, and promoting children to be, resilient in the face of forces of neoliberalization. Creating an expectation for children to be resilient in the face of the same forces that curtail the ability of children to co-construct and contest these forces manages to deflect the responsibility for children to survive, develop, and thrive within the norms back on the child; the focus on children as resilient averts attention and action away from addressing where the inequality in power lies between the individual and abstract, global forces of neoliberalization. A conception of childhood that acknowledges the child as situated in a network of other children and adults, all yielding different levels and types of power to be affected by and affect social, cultural, political, and economic powers at various scales helps us to better understand what “childhood” really means, and how we can play a role in changing that conception to be one that better respects children’s dignity.