Childhood and Public Life: Reaffirming Biographical Divisions

Spencer E. Cahill

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Cahill, S. E. (1). Childhood and Public Life: Reaffirming Biographical Divisions. Social Problems, 37(3), 390–402.

adults , American culture , childhood , etiquette , kidnapping , public life , Public space , public sphere , school age children

This article examines contemporary Americans' collective conceptions of childhood and children by focusing attention on the young's participation in public life. Children's behavior and treatment in public places were observed and recorded in fieldnotes over a two year period. These observations, related findings from previously published studies, contemporary urban legends, newspaper stories and advice columns are analyzed in light of the history of childhood in Western societies. That analysis indicates that the young's access to public places in contemporary American society is quite limited and that they are commonly treated as less than complete persons. At least in public places, there is little evidence that the distinction between childhood and adulthood is eroding in contemporary American society, as many have claimed.

Main finding
The author finds children's access to public space in contemporary American society to be restricted, with young children often not allowed freedom of movement without clearly being under the care of an adult. One cause of this limited access to public space is a fear of crime perpetuated by urban legends of abduction or physical harm to children. Upon breaking these norms, or any disruption of the public order by young children, moral accountability is placed upon the adult caretakers. There is gradual emancipation of children as they grow older and gain more freedom of movement. However, groups of older children are still treated with suspicion and often policed as a potential threat to public order. These expressive acts of control reproduce the division between adults and children in public space.

Description of method used in the article
Over two years, the author and several research assistants conducted more than 300 hours of observation of young children in public places such as streets, shopping malls, parks, restaurants, and laundromats across the northeastern United States. Written works, such as prior studies, newspaper articles, and advice columns, and contemporary folklore were also analyzed.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Archival / Historical Field Observations
Physical types
Geographic locations