Category Archives: Childhood

Children’s Literature and Material Culture

I wonder how many other people’s gateway into a fascination with material culture was sparked by the Little House books. Or similar historical narratives that involved a lot of details about daily living, homemaking processes, etc.

As long as I can remember, I’ve felt that objects have a particular power and contain multiple meanings. “It’s only stuff” was never something that resonated, and I struggle to give that statement weight to this day. Because stuff is hardly ever just “only” itself. Objects can transport us to the past (our own or an imagined someone else’s), to different cultures and ways of being in the world. Time travel made manifest.

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Filed under Childhood, Historical, Nostalgia

Pets as Conduits to Health?

As I made my way to one of my regular dog-walking clients yesterday, I caught a story on the radio about a new study out of the Rand Corporation. Contrary to what the authors call “a widely held belief that children’s general and psychological health benefits from owning and/or interacting with pets,” there was no statistically significant difference between the health of children who lived with pet animals and those who lived solely with other humans.

Let’s side-step an interrogation of the study’s assumption that children’s health is a major reason adults adopt cats and dogs. We all have assumptions about the motivations of other people in our culture. For example, my assumption has long been that some parents and guardians see pets as a way to teach their children responsibility, aside from perhaps enjoying the company of companion animals themselves or wishing to reproduce the conditions of their own childhoods for their offspring. I cannot access the full study to see whether the authors cite any sources that back up their particular assumption. A quick glance at the references section indicates both an explosion of scholarship on pet-human relationships and that the authors likely have research to back up the assumption stated above.

Back when I spent a lot of time researching U.S. pet-keeping practices, I don’t recall reading or asking my informants about the reasons they chose to bring pet animals into their homes. This not only seems like a significant oversight on my part, but an intriguing line of research to pursue in the future. At the very least, I’m considering subscribing to Anthrozoös.

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Filed under Animals, Childhood, Contemporary

Voicing the Voiceless

Earlier today as I stood in line at checkout, I overheard one of the cashiers at another line ooh over a customer’s baby. “Look at her, she’s like, ‘I just wanna go back to sleep,'” the cashier said.

I thought about how quickly we map our expectations onto other beings, how easily we imbue them with personalities of our own designs. And how we tend to do this for those who can’t “speak” for themselves: babies and animals.

My pets have distinct personalities, but I’m not fooling myself. I know these personalities spring not from them, but from my idea of them. My interpretations of their behaviors. I speak for them in silly voices, attributing reactions and thoughts that they very well may not have.

I’ve caught myself doing the same thing to babies. My friend and I were hanging out with her toddler, and I found myself saying things like, “he’s like, ‘mm, mysterious berries!” or “he says, ‘I dunno about this strange lady.'” How presumptuous of me!

When we speak for animals and for babies, we privilege our interpretation of them over the ways in which they are already communicating with us. They have personalities, but can we recognize them? How much of a being’s personality originates with them, and how much is in the mind of the beholder? This is back to the classic conundrum of intent vs. interpretation, which I tried to suss out a few weeks ago.

And how can we even begin to untangle this when considering cases of pet personality development, much less human personality development? Luckily, I think humans are pretty good at asserting themselves when push comes to shove, outsider interpretations be damned. But until they can do so verbally, they’re at a disadvantage. Those of us who can speak tend to do so for them unless we really check ourselves. Hopefully their development isn’t too much at our mercy.

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Filed under Animals, Childhood, Power

Embodying the Other: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Regret, Hope

When I was about 6 years old, I used two paper bags from the grocery store to make myself an “Indian” costume for Thanksgiving. (It was the early 90’s. “Native American” wasn’t in use among 1st graders yet.) I was, and am, very white. No one in my family thought this home-made costume was problematic. On the contrary, I remember being praised and photographed for being cute and creative.

Wearing that costume was wrong. I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish someone had pointed out why this was an offensive sartorial choice.

As we near Halloween, we’re seeing the yearly outpouring of thoughtful articles about costumes, sexualization, and cultural appropriation. I hope, if I have kids, that I am able to communicate the importance of cultural respect and appropriate costume choices. Why wearing another person’s heritage is racist, violent, and erases their humanity. It reduces identity to a commodity, to something a white person can put on and, crucially, take off, because a white person has the power to remain unmarked.

It only gets worse when you consider the difference between costumes designed for women. Alden Wicker wrote recently about the intersection of sexist & racist costumes. Though not simultaneously, I, too, have been guilty of both. I hope to teach my children that “sexy” costumes are yet another way for our culture to control women and tell them that they only have value insofar as they cater to the straight male gaze.

With knowledge and respect for people of all cultural backgrounds and genders, perhaps my future children won’t make the kinds of offensive, dis-empowering mistakes I have.

I must do better than younger me, for future us.

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Filed under Childhood, Commodification, Gender Trouble, Power, Racism

Rhyming as Credibility: General Truths in Early Childhood

During the elementary school era of childhood in the United States, rhyming carries with it a certain authority. It gives the meaning behind words a type of magical credibility. Speaking in rhymed verse becomes a stand-in for truth-telling, lending the verse the authority it needs to go unchallenged. It can be used as a retort, an argument in and of itself. Rhyming verses are the aphorisms of childhood.

I’m still working through the mechanics of this phenomenon, but I’d be willing to posit that rhyming, and rhyming verses especially, occupy a privileged position in children’s language. Rhyming is a type of authoritative discourse. Consider a few examples:

  • Snitches get stitches
  • Sticks and stones may break my bones…
  • Easy cheesy/ Easy-peasy lemon squeezy

Each of these sayings are tossed about the playground like so many punch-balls, and even find their ways into the classroom and the mouths of adults who wish to speak on the child’s “level.” To reach them with an authority they will understand, master, and even be able to take ownership of. The easy-peasiness of it, if you will, provides children with a short-hand for the final word on a subject. A commonly held belief among their peers that cannot be challenged.

The rhyming appeals to the authority of truth, because the rhymes have been repeated, are ingrained into the consciousness of the average American school child. They hear these often from one another and the adults on positions of authority within knowledge production and dissemination. Even upon hearing a rhymed phrase for the first time, the fact that the phrase rhymes lends it an aura of believability.

Children repeat these things to one another ad nauseam. The phrases, by virtue of their rhyming qualities, are easier to remember, and thus more likely to be repeated. The repetition itself lends an element of truth–would these phrases be repeated so often if they weren’t true?

And so this becomes, if I remember correctly, an instance of second-order indexicality. The type of speech (rhyming verse) becomes a marker of the very quality from which it derives its power (truth). Or maybe I’ve been away from the text books too long and can’t remember how to use “second-order indexicality” correctly. Perhaps I’ve argued myself into a merry-go-round death-trap.

In any case, something is going on below the surface of these agonizingly trite childhood chants.

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Filed under Childhood, Wordplay