Rethinking Childhood

Rethinking Childhood

Rethinking Childhood

Rethinking Childhood


Being a child in American society can be problematic. Twenty percent of American children live in poverty, parents are divorcing at high rates, and educational institutions are not always fulfilling their goals. Against this backdrop, children are often patronized or idealized by adults. Rarely do we look for the strengths within children that can serve as the foundation for growth and development. In Rethinking Childhood, twenty contributors, coming from the disciplines of anthropology, government, law, psychology, education, religion, philosophy, and sociology, provide a multidisciplinary view of childhood by listening and understanding the ways children shape their own futures. Topics include education, poverty, family life, divorce, neighborhood life, sports, the internet, and legal status. In all these areas, children have both voice and agency. They construct their own social networks and social reality, sort out their own values, and assess and cope with the perplexing world around them. The contributors present ideas that lead not only to new analyses but also to innovative policy applications. Taken together, these essays develop a new paradigm for understanding childhood as children experience these years. This paradigm challenges readers to develop fresh ways of listening to children's voices that enable both children and adults to cross the barriers of age, experience, and stereotyping that make communication difficult. A volume in the Rutgers Series in Childhood Studies, edited by Myra Bluebond-Langner.


This book has had an interesting history. The seed for the undertaking was planted by school psychologist Joy Unsworth, who named the issue for us, pointing to the rapidly growing triad of abuse, neglect, and poverty afflicting children in our society. That concern was reinforced in conversations with Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children's Defense Fund. At Smith College, the concern took root when a group of student leaders, faculty members, and others formed a Coalition for Children, with the purpose of focusing community attention on the welfare of children. The Coalition articulated an agenda and developed a program of education and service around that purpose.

About the same time, two other events occurred. A paper entitled “A Proposal for Responding to the National Childhood Crisis” was presented to members of the Smith faculty by Lester Little, then a professor of history and now director of the American Academy in Rome, Lella Gandini of the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts, and Cathy Weisman Topal, a teacher of visual arts at the Smith College Day School. Their paper called for a sustained and interdisciplinary faculty discussion to determine what resources Smith College might muster to help meet the growing list of conditions adversely affecting the welfare of children in our society.

The second event was the creation of the Kahn Institute for Liberal Studies at Smith, funded by the estate of Smith alumna Louise Kahn, 1931, and her husband, Edmund. The Institute was founded to support “collaborative research among faculty, students and visiting scholars without regard to the traditional boundaries of departments, programs, and academic divisions.” Such a purpose was tailor made for a study dealing with children's issues, issues that require the shared concern and common attention of people from many disciplines.

Members of the Coalition for Children then submitted a proposal to the Kahn Institute, asking that the first Kahn Institute project be a year-long study entitled “Exploring Ecologies of Children.” The proposal was endorsed and the project was undertaken in 1998–1999. The study began in earnest when a crossdisciplinary group of twenty Kahn Fellows was brought together, ten faculty . . .

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