In the early days of sociology (and of anthropology as well), it was common to view tribal groups (in Africa, Australia, and South America and, in the US, Native Americans) as ‘primitive’ and ‘child-like’. Comparisons of and analogies between children and ‘primitives’ were common. Nowadays it is recognized that such comparisons minimize the complexity of tribal life. Although tribal social arrangements indeed differ from those of modern-day Western societies, both involve assumptions, beliefs, knowledge, science, and practical action as those are defined by participants. Differences can be recognized without necessitating a judgment that one way is in any absolute sense better or truer than another.
Just as it has turned out that tribal societies are not ‘child-like’, it may be that children themselves are not either. Rather, the idea may be an adult stereotype of children, a stereotype that facilitates adult control and an adult assumption of superiority. In many respects the children encountered in the foregoing pages have not been ‘child-like’ but, rather, competent actors in the social world, creating and transmitting lore (Opies); telling stories (Sacks); displaying aesthetic concerns and creating art (Cavin); even participating in drug-taking (Adlers); encountering ‘hard times’ and developing ways of dealing with them (Waksler); and possessing a variety of ways of ‘being in the world’ (Mandell, Goode). Indeed, when children appear child-like it may be that they are playing a role expected by adults rather than displaying some necessary, age-related characteristics.
The readings and my commentary on them that constitute this book offer a variety of ways to approach the understanding of children’s experiences in and of the social world. Fundamental to this understanding is the recognition of the many ways that adult biases impede such understanding—biases that are often hard to avoid because in everyday life adults regularly take them for granted and use them unreflectively. These assumptions that adults make about children are crucially important to bring forward and identify if adult behavior towards children and children’s behavior towards adults is to be understood. Only by articulating such assumptions and setting them as topics of empirical research, and as potentially falsifiable, is it possible to understand the varieties of children’s possible behavior and the