The Political Life of Children
Robert Coles has spent most of his professional life asking children questions and listening to their answers. Like most psychoanalytically trained psychiatrists, he originally concentrated on the interior negotiations of ego, id, and superego as shaped by early childhood experiences in the family. His best-known work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Children of Crisis series (five volumes, 1967-1978), revealed his dissatisfaction with attempts to explain personality in purely individual terms and explored the influence of social, economic, and cultural forces. More recently, a trip to South Africa made Coles notice the psychological resonance of political thought. Impressed by the vigor of children’s statements about racial and national interests, he realized that young people did not simply internalize their parents’ voices or recite the pat phrases they had learned in school. He began to suspect that he had overlooked many comments suggesting political knowledge of children in the United States because they seemed so obvious. Indeed, Coles shared the values and so did not see that they were culturally specific. Furthermore, as a Pueblo woman had tried to make clear to him some years earlier, political statements may be as deeply repressed—in a country of difference—as sexual matters; even small children learn to protect privacy by avoiding topics that may arouse sensitivities, and a left-liberal intellectual such as Coles might avoid probing because he was worried about the ethics of talking about politics in a psychiatric context.
In The Political Life of Children, Coles reexamines notes and tapes from interviews conducted during the 1960’s for the Children in Crisis series, paying attention this time to political themes. Additional studies conducted in South Africa, Northern Ireland, England, Nicaragua, Canada, Poland, Cambodia, Thailand, and Brazil are both interesting in themselves and useful because international comparisons highlight some aspects of American experience. The book is partly a cross-cultural study of political socialization, in the conventinal sense—including an exploration of the reasons that political indoctrination in the schools succeeds in some countries and fails miserably in others—and, more generally, an exploration of children’s ability to figure out the nature of the political world around them.
When, in Brazil, Coles asked children what their country was like and how it was to live there, most of them—whether rich, middle class, or poor—answered in terms of class. All were aware that the quality of life in Brazil was determined by one’s social class. More surprising, Coles believes that class is also the shaping lens for children in the United States. The vocabulary of class difference may be repressed, but the awareness is there. A white boy from South Boston, talking about the school busing order by a federal judge, remarked:There’s a lot good in this country: the freedoms we have, and we’re better off than people in other countries. But you’ll find we all know that there’s a different law for the rich than there is for the poor, and the government grabs all it can from us; meanwhile, it helps the ones who can afford to push and push. . . . If there’s a war, it’s us who fight—just look at the people from Southie who died in the wars we’ve had. The people in the suburb, where that judge lives, their sons don’t go and get killed fighting for the country. They get deferrals, or they’re the officers, and they tell us to go and kill the enemy or get killed by the enemy!
Children from well-to-do backgrounds also tended to criticize the government, partly because of conservatism but partly, in some cases, because elite families can speak from inside knowledge about failure and stupidity in high places. Middle-class children seem less sophisticated: They tend automatically to accept the political banalities of civics books and also to assume that everyone in the country shares their values and experiences.
In the United States, it is generally assumed that late adolescence and early adulthood are the prime age for developing political thought and engagement. Coles’s study suggests that children from about age four to age ten may show more real evidence of outspoken and independent opinion: “They can poke fun at the self-important, see through any number of phonies, and wryly take on subjects the rest of us have learned to skirt.” The typical elementary classroom attempts to socialize through social studies: Children learn to say that the president is always good and that the United States is the best country in the world. The program is most successful with white middle-class children—perhaps one reason that Coles himself was so slow to perceive the political dimension of children’s conversations. After he had won their trust, poor children and black...
(The entire section is 2001 words.)