Observations on the Limits of “Children’s Voices”
Mona Gleason, Department of Educational Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia
Perhaps the one concern that binds historians of children and youth together, regardless of national context, time frame, or thematic interest, is the search for “children’s voices” in the past. Recovering and highlighting the perspectives of young people in our histories distinguishes our field from others. Many papers at SHCY conferences, published journal articles, and books in the field are devoted to finding and underscoring the child’s voice, often used as a short hand for a commitment to uncovering their “agency.” Having just completed a book entitled Small Matters: Canadian Children in Sickness and Health, 1900 to 1940, I’ve struggled quite intimately with what it means to include and highlight the “child’s voice.” After all, the perspectives of young people on this complex and multilayered history, I argue in the book, is the very thing missing in much of the Canadian historiography on health and medicine, generally, and health and childhood, in particular. My book relies heavily on the oral histories of a wide range of adults who grew up in Canada over the early to mid-twentieth century. It was critical to me that the oral histories about health experiences formed the backbone of the book. This would, I believed, literally “give voice,” however imperfect and mediated, to young people thereby establishing their agency as historical actors. It was not that simple. My attempts to “write children into” this history by including their “voices” in my analysis, brought to the surface a number of theoretical and methodological caveats that are particularly applicable to the Canadian historiography, but that also have relevance writ large. I briefly outline only two of these caveats below – there are others, but I’ll limit myself to these for this brief post.
The search for children’s voices and/or their agency may limit us to continually establishing their historical significance in a rather superficial way. The challenge for the field, particularly in the early years, was to proclaim (and indeed “prove”) that children had a history. Inserting children’s voices into an already established historical narrative, like the early, compensatory stage of women’s history, was an important way to stake youngsters’ claims as “historical actors.” It is time, however, to move past this compensatory stage. What would it mean for us to make bolder claims for the importance of young people, beyond highlighting their presence in the past, or their response to adult-driven agendas, to meaningful historical change? Challenging the “meta-narratives” of history, not just adding children into them, is one important direction that historians of children and youth might fruitfully pursue.
Our search for children’s voices may lock us into an interpretive cycle that pits adult perspectives against those of young people. I’m concerned that a dependence on inserting children’s voices as a shorthand for their agency primarily, if not exclusively, in contrast to adult voices, tends to entrench a bifurcated and ultimately limiting, analytical approach (so we trapped in an “adult said, kids said” or “adult said, kids did”). Although it is not always the case, binaried interpretive approaches tend to downplay the messier “in between” of more nuanced and negotiated exchanges between and among young people, as well as those between adults and children, not to mention among differentially placed children and differentially placed adults (children and their teachers, the bus driver, or their aunts and uncles, for example!) Whose “voices” are we listening to in the past? Whose voices are still silent or overlooked? What do these silences mean for our analyses?
I invite the SHCY community to weigh in on this issue of voice, and add your own caveats, as we continue to expand and deepen our field.