Does it matter if adults use children for their own ends – especially in politics?
Is the instrumentalisation of children by grownups (past, present and future) always fundamentally exploitative?
Should we care? And if so, how might we help?
These were some of the questions which a workshop held recently at King’s College London, entitled ‘Children’s Burden or Benefit: Using young people to promote ideas of the future’ set out to answer.
Given that I’m currently writing a history of the most prominent Nazi elite schools, the Napolas, the title of the workshop caught my eye as soon as it was advertised. For the former Napola-pupils with whom I have been working and conducting interviews over the past few years, the pressure and responsibility of living up to the ideals of the National Socialist regime, and of proving oneself worthy of having been selected as a putative future leader of the Third Reich, have often been immense. So, although the researchers running the project – Laura King, Vicky Crewe and Lindsey Dodd – were primarily focusing on the history of childhood in Britain and France, the potential parallels and insights which they could provide for comparison with the German case seemed fascinating, even just from a quick look at their project website.
Part of an AHRC-funded project supported by the History & Policy initiative, their research focuses on children as ‘agents of future promise’ in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain and France. Building on this foundation, the workshop aimed to explore the ways in which children are often forced to bear the burden of adults’ expectations, particularly when they are used collectively to promote visions of a brighter political or social future.
The idea of a “workshop” might conjure up visions of the usual smattering of academic papers with a predominantly historical focus – just another word, in fact, for a miniature one-day conference. Instead, those attending were presented with a veritable smorgasbord of insights, not only from the historians involved in the project, but also from representatives of children’s charities (War Child, Plan International) and campaign groups (Let Toys be Toys). The day was brilliantly structured so as to allow plenty of time for discussion, which so often gets short-changed or hijacked at academic conferences – so, participants were encouraged to debate and reflect upon the key questions raised by the presentations, not only after each speaker had given their paper, but also in small groups throughout the day.
Still from Humphrey Jennings’ ‘A Diary for Timothy’
The day began with a brief introduction by Laura King, the ‘Agents of Future Promise’ project’s principal investigator. She established a theoretical framework for thinking about the various presentations which we were going to hear, touching on contemporary debates which represent childhood as a social construction whose definition is constantly changing.
Historically – or even in the present day – there often exists a tension between defining children wholly according to their current, often highly dependent, ‘child’ status (their ‘being’) – or defining them according to expectations of what they may achieve as future adults (their ‘becoming’). And yet, if we only see children in terms of what they may one day become, do we too easily lose sight of them as actors in the present? And if some children, such as the offspring of asylum-seekers, are assumed to be less good ‘investments’ for the future than others, what detrimental impact may that assumption have on policy in the present?
We were then treated to Laura’s own paper, entitled ‘How were children mobilised to represent the future in World War II Britain?’ Using a variety of sources, including newspapers, documentary films, parliamentary reports and election materials, Laura’s research showed that anxieties about children’s health and safety, in the context of rationing and the wartime evacuation programme, meant that children were more actively invoked in British politics during the Second World War than ever before. These were, after all, the ‘citizens of the future’, and as such, needed to be protected and fostered, both mentally and physically. This rhetoric of ‘investment’ in the nation’s children in order to secure Britain’s future was seized upon by an amazingly diverse range of politicians and organisations – from Labour MPs to Churchill himself; from children’s charities such as the NSPCC to margarine manufacturers, or even the Norwich Union insurance company – whose advertising slogans during this period included ‘The leaders of tomorrow are amongst the children of today!’ Whether in terms of advertising, fundraising, or political grandstanding, such visions of childhood provided a cogent economic rationale for spending on children, in a way which seemed to transcend the usual political or social boundaries.
We then moved on to Lindsey Dodd‘s paper, ‘How did the Vichy Government in World War II France involve children in the pursuit of its goals?’ Drawing mainly on material from the French National Archives, Lindsey’s research examines the ways in which the Pétainist regime not only instrumentalised children, but allowed them to become political agents in their own right. Whereas children are often defined in terms of lack, incompetence, irrationality, and dependence – in short, as non-adults, or as projects rather than people – she argued that Vichy France in some sense empowered not only women, but children too, allowing them to participate in, and even influence, the life of the polity (even if, in terms of the Pétainist battle for births, ‘having children’ was still ultimately prioritised over ‘being children’).
Just as in wartime Britain, children were portrayed as symbols of ‘restoration’ and ‘the rebirth of hope’. However, in propaganda terms, the Vichy regime saw children as miniature ‘Trojan horses’ who could pass Pétainist values on to their families, reeducating those adults who were still tainted by their decadent prewar past, and setting them a good example. Children were encouraged to earn money to send to the Vichy national charity, or to send Marshal Pétain Christmas surprises, such as a drawing of the part of France which they loved most, in order to ‘bring a smile to his face’ (the government received over two million of these!). More questionably, they were also invited to denounce or ostracise any of their peers who refused to cooperate with the regime’s ‘Loyalty Leagues’, which had been founded to abolish cheating and oppositional behaviour in schools. Every child who wrote a letter to Pétain received a reply, which sometimes led to long-standing correspondence, and which generally contributed to children’s sense of responsibility and loyalty to the regime, as well as their engagement with its policies. These, then, Lindsey argues, were truly child citizens, who sought to fulfil the regime’s confidence in their social influence, in as far as this was possible – even if, ultimately, they could only offer Pétain ‘some of my green beans which I’ve saved’, or a drawing of a squirrel.
In the second session, two practitioners, Matt Ruuska from War Child UK, and Kerry Smith from Plan International, took the floor. Both charities’ representatives focused upon the absolute necessity of children becoming ‘stakeholders’ in their own development (a welcome reversal of the adult-centered investment rhetoric which we had encountered previously?). While Kerry highlighted Plan International’s ‘Because I am a girl…I’ll take it from here’ campaign, which aims to eradicate underage marriage, FGM, and other types of female inequality and persecution, particularly in education, Matt concentrated upon the measures which War Child takes to empower the children whose voices they champion. Above all, the charity believes that children should never be portrayed as helpless victims, and that their stories should under no circumstances be criminalised, sensationalised or trivialised. War Child helps children who have suffered terribly, yet survived, to learn what it means to speak out and articulate their human rights, yet without compromising their need for privacy. In one series of cartoon videos which the charity has created in order to persuade runaway children in Afghanistan (and beyond) that they can turn to War Child for aid, most of the animation had been completed by the charity’s protégés themselves. But the most harrowing promotional video of all – one which had apparently moved hardened charity employees to tears when it was first shown – is ‘Duty of Care’ – a Call of Duty-style videogame simulation, which brings to horrific life the trauma and anguish visited upon children in any warzone. Watch it: I guarantee that it will change your perspective within two-and-a-half minutes.
The third session focused on toys – past and present. Vicky Crewe‘s paper, ‘What do toys tell us about children’s roles in the British Empire in the wake of the Second Boer War (1899-1902)?’, explored how toys and games can be used to influence children’s national identification, encouraging them both to empathise with their country’s war effort in the present, and giving them an appetite for war later in life. Toy soldiers, Boer-War-themed games such as ‘The Relief of Ladysmith’ or ‘The Pretoria Bomb’, and even clockwork armoured trains (advertised in toy catalogues as ‘the novelty of the season!’), all helped to make children more enamoured of the war. Meanwhile, prizes such as knives and pens were offered to children if they sent letters to the troops, or solved war-related puzzles. One nine-year-old Irish boy clearly demonstrated the efficacy of this type of indoctrination when he demanded to be allowed to join up and fight straight away. On the other hand, girls’ magazines such as the Girl’s Own Paper contained far less war-related advertising than their male counterparts – and, when the war was mentioned, the focus was firmly placed upon quintessentially feminine activities such as fundraising and letter-writing – or simply upon stoic endurance whilst waiting for one’s menfolk to return.
That such gendered advertising is not only far from being a thing of the past, but that in recent years it has reached undreamed of heights (or should that be depths?) was amply proved by Jess Day’s presentation on ‘Gender training: What are toys and toy adverts teaching children about what it means to be a boy or girl?’ Jess is part of a grassroots media campaign called Let Toys be Toys, which is gradually gaining ever more momentum. Their raison d’être is quite simple – to persuade toy companies and retailers that there is no need to present their wares in a gender-segregated fashion, with hoardings over the aisles in Toys”R”Us, Boots or Centre Parks, bearing legends such as “Gifts for Boys”, “justboys” and “justgirls”. While any toy that has anything to do with construction, science, locomotion – or even just toy animals – is commonly marketed as “Boys’ Stuff”, girls are left with cosmetics, toiletries, and pink tat – the most egregious example of all three categories combined being a “Hello Kitty Beauty Spa”.
This segregation and “pinkification”, which is now prevalent at all levels of the toy industry, has also made its way into book marketing, and has even gone so far as to infect a certain brand of antenatal scans – half of which bear the legend “Future Athlete” (blue, with rugby ball branding), the other “Future Diva” (you guessed it: pink, with flowers)… Yes, targeted merchandise begins to be directed at children before they have even left the womb.
Depressingly, wordles from the achilleseffect.com website which focused on the toy industry’s gendered marketing language showed that many of the most popular words aimed at girls included “fashion”, “style”, “glam”, “nails”, “perfect”, and so forth, while boys were bombarded with words such as “battle”, “action”, “power”, “attack”, and “beat” (with “friends” hiding away, shamefacedly, in one corner). What could be more calculated to bear out the result of a recent Girl Guiding survey, which found that 87% of girls think that women are judged more on their appearance than their ability? Maybe the truth behind that old Mitchell and Webb skit on gendered advertising is more worrying than we realised…
The negative effect of all this on children who do not fit the industry’s stereotypes should not be underestimated, for all that it bears little comparison with the wartime hardships depicted by the charity representatives. One small girl was almost reduced to collapse after suffering endless teasing at school for her “boyish” clothes and pastimes – and then finding that even the naming of the aisles in her local toyshop deemed her enthusiasm for construction toys to be unnatural. Meanwhile, boys are finding themselves hamstrung by negative stereotypes, particularly about their supposed academic inferiority. A recently-commissioned report on boys’ reading habits found that 18% of boys and 12% of girls think that it is “girly” to read any book at all, and 19% of boys admitted that they would be embarrassed if they thought that a friend had seen them reading. The effect of such stereotyping also has a negative impact on imagined career choices: the medic-themed toys which Jess Day’s own daughter played with, which habitually portrayed men as doctors and women as mere nurses, had a greater hold on her young imagination than did her own lived reality, in which most of the doctors she had ever encountered had been female. Meanwhile, boys are brought up to believe that a career in the caring professions must be a de facto impossibility. A pitiful list compiled by a class of 9-year-old Canadian boys under the heading “What I don’t like about being a boy” ran as follows:
Jess stressed that, by “not being able to be a mother”, the boys didn’t mean not being able physically to give birth, but merely not being able to be a hands-on father – the idea that men could be engaged parents was basically unthinkable for them.
As a little girl who utterly despised dolls (favouring teddy-bears, or even teddy-leopards!), who loved playing with model railways, Meccano, and toy swords (as well as fashioning heraldic shields out of Ready Brek boxes), and who plastered her bedroom walls and boarding-school pinboards with posters of steam trains – as opposed to the usual fare of ponies, fluffy animals or Leonardo di Caprio – I couldn’t sympathise more with the valiant work that Jess and the Let Toys be Toys team are doing. The idea that the vitality of any child’s imagination – or even ambition – should be curbed and sapped by the “pinkification” strategies dictated by the collective will of corporate marketing machines is highly distressing – and yet it happens every day, all over the world.
To conclude, then: All too often, seeking to join research and policy at the hip, or bringing practitioners and academics together, can seem rather forced – easily discernible as a piece of “outreach” that has merely been designed to tick the appropriate box on a funding application form, rather than being either a joy or a necessity. However, this workshop proved absolutely that, when done well, such initiatives can have true value and real impact – it provided the best kind of model for how dialogue can and should be fostered between academia and the wider world (perhaps it even encouraged us to erase that very dichotomy from our minds!).
In conclusion, Laura, Lindsey, Vicky, and the History and Policy team should all be congratulated for pulling together a programme which surely has to rank as one of the most enjoyable workshops or conferences I have ever attended. The day was full of unique insights, surprises – and, above all, fruitful opportunities to broaden one’s perspectives beyond the purely historical.
This conference report was originally written for the ‘Agents of Future Promise’ blog, University of Leeds