The Political Life of Children

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2001

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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 children revealed their cynicism and mistrust. Their attitudes often arose from specific personal or family experiences (with police, strikes, the welfare or health-care system, or racial and ethnic prejudice) that do not touch more fortunate children.

Coles is interested in political development both as a psychoanalyst and as a citizen. He suggests that an awareness of country, language, and “home” is one aspect of a child’s security and sense of identity: The concept of the nation as parent is instrumental in the formation of the superego. Yet he does not really speculate on the implications of his findings. In the United States, a sense of nationalism is strongest in the lower-middle and skilled working classes. Among those higher on the social scale, a sense of national identity is automatic but not particularly strong—other factors are more essential supports for an individual’s sense of personal worth. Because of personal experiences, however, negative perceptions of political culture may develop early in the underclass. Is it possible that this cynicism—which makes scoffing at textbooks and teachers’ pieties a thoroughly intelligent response—has some relationship to the poor school performance and high dropout rate of the least privileged?

In The Moral Life of Children (1986; a companion study, reviewed in this volume), Coles observes that children of privilege tend to be the most worried about nuclear war; less fortunate children have more immediate moral concerns—hunger, drugs, the temptations of hustling, the bad people in their own families or neighborhoods. Yet the material in The Political Life of Children suggests that even very unsophisticated children perceive the precondition of a nuclear holocaust—enmity between peoples. A Hopi child speculates on the possibility of the Navaho getting nuclear weapons; Southern black children wonder what would happen if the Ku Klux Klan had them; black South African children believe that the South African government already possesses them. These personalized fears—or fantasies—imply the children’s awareness that nuclear weapons can be used only if one group of people is capable of denying the personhood of another group.

The interviews with Belfast children reek of hate, aggression, and anger. Yet in the midst of poverty and almost-daily danger, there is an ironic psychic gain. Even very young children have a sense of purpose in their lives: Religious and neighborhood loyalties make individual selfishness—and individual isolation—rare. The Belfast children are reluctant to draw pictures of themselves except as part of a group, and egoistic displays by adults are rare.

Belfast’s young people—who are startingly articulate about political beliefs and who take part in violent deeds while still in their early teens—sometimes lose interest in politics at age fifteen or sixteen, the age at which, in the United States, political interests are only starting to develop. One wishes that Coles had gone further to explain this observation. Is baiting soldiers and running explosives for the Irish Republican Army a political outlet for the wildness that typically marks the passage through puberty? Or is it simply a matter of historical lag? The Belfast children, as he describes them, seem to live at a nineteenth century tempo, with childhood over at eleven or twelve and full adult responsibilities arriving at fifteen or sixteen. For example, when Mary reached the age of fourteen, she had to take responsibility for five younger siblings and wished only for peace, though as a child she had been fiercer than many boys. Kate, at fifteen, stopped going out with gangs. A traditional psychoanalyst would see evidence of female maturity and biological destiny, and it may be that Coles’s assumptions keep him from probing further.

Totalitarian countries generally make children in schools the prime targets of political indoctrination. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista reforms and the Sandinista educational propaganda virtually created a national identity—a sense of Nicaragua as a country with a history and a role in the world—which had not existed under earlier regimes. On the other hand, forty years of political indoctrination in Poland has had very little effect, probably because Polish nationalism—and, in particular, the Polish language as the vehicle of national identity—long predates the Polish Communist state. The historical perspective, which Coles ignores, would have reinforced his argument. It is not simply that a common culture—and a contempt for the Russian language—has effectively subverted indoctrination from Moscow. The Polish language also preserved national identity during more than a century of partition when there was no Polish state at all.

One of Belfast’s politically astute children observed that the only thing she could think of to unite Catholics and Protestants would be the immigration of a few thousand Pakistanis—then the Irish would all get together to hate them. The situation in South Africa seems to confirm her observation: The English and Afrikaner work together because they share a white skin, though in other circumstances they might be as divided by religion as the children of Belfast or by language as the children of Quebec. A South African child’s sense of “nationality” is extraordinarily complex: English, Afrikaner, colored, and black have four separate identities and experiences.

Coles usually asked the children to draw pictures. In commenting on the drawings reproduced in The Political Life of Children, Coles observes that white children the world around drawing themselves—even the extremely race-conscious Afrikaner children—generally use a black crayon to outline their bodies. Black children in America also outline with black crayon and then usually color themselves brown, pressing down hard or lightly to get the shade they want. The South African children of mixed heritage—officially designated “colored” by their government—were more color conscious than any other group of children Coles interviewed. They used orange, white, tan, and other crayons to come up with an appropriate skin shade but never touched the black crayon, even for an outline. Also, children in Soweto would not draw pictures of themselves alone. When asked for a self-portrait, they depicted crowds; if pushed to identify themselves they would point to one indistinguishable person in the group. Children in Belfast, like the black children of Soweto, also drew themselves, as part of a group, going into battle, but the Irish children’s drawings usually show a leader—a figure half again as big as the others, heroically heading the attack—who is clearly a self-portrait of the boy or girl who drew the picture.

The painful complexity of the South African situation is summed up in a painting by an Afrikaner boy. At the left is an ambiguous gun battle: It may be black against white, or it may represent the Boer-English conflict that exerts as much living presence as the Civil War did in the American South of the 1950’s. At the picture’s center is a magnificent South African landscape: cottages, tall grass, mountains. Overhead is a beaming sun—with a face of pain and grief. On the right is a puzzling angular construction of gray and black. Pressed for an explanation, the boy narrated a difficult and confusing dream which he had recently had about nuclear bombs. The extraordinary linkage of historical past, natural beauty, racial or national struggle, and final disaster makes a political statement of wrenching power.


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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 65

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