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Paula Fass: How History has Shaped Children's Rights

  • Fri, Feb 25 2011

From the Enlightenment to the two World Wars, the perception of children as rights bearers evolved and helped set the stage for the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In the following interview with Stephanie Marudas, Paula Fass provides a historical overview of major child-centered reforms and discusses future challenges facing American children. She has published a related article in the January 2011 Annals volume, "The Child as Citizen." Paula Fass is the Margaret Byrne Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley and a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

    • Paula Fass
  • Paula Fass: How History has Shaped Children's Rights

Stephanie Marudas: You have studied the history of childhood from antiquity to modern times and actually produced a multi-volume encyclopedia on the subject. And when it comes to the notion of children having rights, what has history taught us?

Paula Fass: The notion of children as rights bearers, which is what we talk about today, is really a modern notion. It is something that comes out of an ideal of human rights that starts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the Enlightenment and comes to fruition really in the twentieth century. But the idea that there are things that are owed to children really is earlier than that and it comes with the monotheistic religions of the West—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all propose that children need certain kinds of protections and they have certain kinds of rights, vis-à-vis their family members, their fathers, their mothers, as well as obligations, of course. We sometimes only think of the obligations, you know, “Honor thy father and mother,” but, in fact, those religious traditions also endow children with certain kinds of rights including rights of inheritance, rights to shelter and to be taken care of and, in the case of Judaism and Islam, also the right to an education, a religious education. So our conception of rights, which is vested in the individual, really comes out of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the Enlightenment and the emphasis on the individual, which was then developed through Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in terms of children and the role of children in that philosophical tradition. But there are different ways of seeing rights for children and so the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is another one.

SM: Your article [A Historical Context for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child], in The Annals, “The Child as Citizen” volume, provides a historical look at the major events and reforms that helped set the stage for the CRC, the Convention on the Rights of Children that was established in 1989. One of the topics you touch on are anti-child labor laws and if you could talk about that first, and how that set the stage for reform.

PF: In fact, after the change toward the kind of humanistic rights of the seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment, the next really big major change comes in the nineteenth century and it comes heavily because of the moves against child labor. Now, children had been working in the field and with their parents for millennia. But what changes in the nineteenth century is that children begin to work outside the home and not in the family setting; in other words, they go into the factories. And so, industrialization really means that children become laborers as we think of them as laborers and often exploited as laborers. I mean, we can think, for example, of Charles Dickens’ novels and others, which begin to expose the problems of poor children in the factories and the exploitation. And so by the middle of the nineteenth century, lots of movements begin to oppose child labor; these are ideals that the child needs protection from this particular kind of exploitation. By the late nineteenth century, anti-child labor laws, which often go along with compulsory schooling laws, begin to see the child as having certain kinds of needs that both the family and in the absence of the family’s ability to do so, the State should step in and provide for the right to be schooled, for example, and the right not to be exploited and not to be abused. Now, all of this comes in the context of a sentimentalization of children, so children are endowed with certain kinds of characteristics; they are innocent, they are vulnerable, they are dependent on adults for care, and so in that context, you have a vision of childhood that requires that children be set aside in their own institutions and certainly not exploited in factories. And so the anti-child labor movements, which spread throughout the West, Germany, Sweden, France, Britain, the United States, with a major impetus toward the ideal of protecting children and that they have certain kinds of rights, but we have to be careful because they are not the kinds of rights that come to the fore in the U.N. conventions. They are the rights of protection and the right to be treated as children and children are seen as other kinds of creatures; they are not at all adults and they need protection, sometimes from the adults around them, if their families are not caring from them adequately. By the late nineteenth century, there are a variety of organizations, these are public organizations often created by philanthropies that see it as their right even to take those children out of their households and away from their parents in order to provide them with the protections of innocence that they need.

SM: In your Annals article, you take us along historically, as we have been talking about here, and you bring us to World Wars I and II. What effects did these wars have on the protection of children?

PF: I think that the two World Wars in the twentieth century were fundamental to the way we today imagine children’s rights because they come in the context that I was speaking about before, and that is that there is an elevated sense of what children need and by the early twentieth century there is a tremendous sense of exhilaration that, in fact the twentieth century would be the century of childhood, that we were on the verge of doing all these things for children that would genuinely protect them and put them in a state, a special state that the society was responsible for and then these enormous, shocking wars took place. The First World War was, of course, called the Great War in Europe and still called the Great War because of the massive number of casualties and the degree to which civilian populations were targeted by the military and our vision of what happens in those wars, the intentional killing of children; I mean there are lots of propaganda posters about the German invasion of Belgium, where children are speared by bayonets, these are seen on various kinds of war posters. And then, by 1916 to 1917, as the war progresses and there are a variety of embargoes and food stuffs do not reach the civilian populations, especially in Eastern Europe, there is massive starvation. And so a variety of organizations which come out of that view that one needs to protect children begin to move into Europe; the most important is organized by Herbert Hoover, who would subsequently become President of the United States, to literally provide sustenance to the children of Europe. And other organizations also begin to form and those are fundamental, both because they provide the first instances of independent organizations, not state-sponsored, really going and protecting other peoples’ children, not just the children in your own family or nation but in nations who maybe have been your enemies. So the ideal of child protection then comes to the fore and, of course, the very first effort to enunciate the rights of children comes as a result of the League of Nations, which of course, is formed after the First World War precisely because of the horror and the shock that that war provided and so there would now be an international organization to provide various kinds of protections. We know it did not work and that the League of Nations was unable to forestall the Second World War, which, if anything, was even more of a shock, I mean, there the intentional targeting of children by the Nazis throughout Europe, for the Jews and the children of Gypsies and others, meant that there was no real protection for children, that, as the result of their status as children at all, that they could become the equivalent of combatants in war and the massive extermination of the Jewish population in Europe was one of the features, I think, that led to a sense that children really did not have protections as children, that they were no better than and seen in no more sentimental terms than anybody else. So, I think those two wars really do set the stage for the shift that ultimately comes later, not with the initial and earliest 1959 declaration of the rights of the child but eventually with the United Nations Convention, which sees that children themselves have to be invested with rights; not just rights to be protected, but active rights so that, if necessary, they can actually protect themselves. I mean, clearly, neither of the wars provided children with any kind of protections and I think that coming in the context of what had happened in the nineteenth century, which was an elevated sensitivity to children, which had an emotional charge, so that we are emotionally struck by the abuse of children, that the wars then really do set the stage for a view of childhood which is new, which is a radically new perspective, that children are rights bearers.

SM: We learn from your article that Sweden becomes a real model for children’s rights and certainly Sweden was neutral in the wars. But what was going on in Sweden that made this country be sensitive to children’s rights and to take a real interest in promoting it to the point it became a model that the United Nations turned to?

PF: The case of the Swedish role is, in some ways, ironic and some ways predictable. Sweden does take on an unusually visible role in children’s rights to this day. Part of it goes back to the Swedish role in the nineteenth century along with places like Germany and the United States, protecting children against exploitative child labor, insisting on children being educated and setting forth various views of childhood that were, you know, very clear expressions of that late nineteenth century sensibility. What changes, and here is what the ironic part is, that Sweden does not participate in the Second World War; it remains neutral. But its neutrality is breached by its, the best word to use, in fact, is a kind of collaboration with the Nazis, the German Nazi regime, because it allows troop movements over its soil. It certainly does not act heroically against the Fascists. During the war, one of the organizations that Sweden had promoted, called Radda Barn, which was an organization that was part of the Save the Children Fund that grew out of the First World War, grew broadly in Sweden and was able to grow, in good part, because it stayed out of the war; it did not have other kinds of financial obligations, so there was a large increase in the population of that organization. And so, coming out of the war, that organization turns out to have a lot more power in the post-war period and it is Swedish policy after the war to promote itself, partially because of its own guilt, shall we say, at not having done more against the Nazis, to promote itself as a pro-humane organization and a pro-humane nation. And the Swedish king comes out and makes various kinds of statements in that regard. So what you get is a small nation which, because it had not participated in the war, is well positioned after the war to take kind of a leading part in promoting children’s rights and, for various reasons, some of which are not entirely clear but others are related to the prominence of the Swedish welfare state, which grows after the war, the idea of putting children in a prominent position and having the state protect and promote their rights, becomes important. So Sweden, which really is a small and, one could argue, insignificant country in the larger power structures of Europe in the twentieth century, becomes a kind of model of an ideal of protecting children both internally in its own policies, in its social welfare policies, but also externally, because it is on the ground with its organization, Save the Children Fund, and then becomes both in that organization, which is a non-governmental organization, and then subsequently, it is because of that role, Sweden is asked to participate in UNICEF and take the prominent role in UNICEF and in the various ways in which the United Nations organizations begin to articulate the rights of children. So, after the war, Sweden always has some prominent role to play. I myself spent five months there and I was struck by the degree to which the Swedes are always interested in learning from other societies and in an ideal of progress, and so they, themselves, take the United Nations convention very seriously in their own lawmaking, much more seriously, I think, than most other countries. They see themselves not only as the proponents of children’s rights, but as people who have something to learn about children’s rights from international organizations.

SM: With that said, what is your view on the United States not having ratified the CRC as of today?

PF: The fact that the United States has not ratified the United Nations convention gives it a black eye in the world. It is one of those faux pas, shall we say, in a world that is increasingly oriented toward articulating various kinds of rights for us not to have done that. As an American historian, on the other hand, I am fully aware that it is part of the general neglect, intentional neglect, to join various kinds of international conventions. It does not excuse it, but it does mean that we feel somehow that we can set ourselves apart from what is happening in the rest of the world. That is another irony; I mean, if there was any society, any country that set the basis for many of the changes in the twentieth century toward international responsibility for children, it is the United States. It was Herbert Hoover, it was money that came out of the United States after the First World War and even during the First World War, that acted vigorously and powerfully on behalf of children. And Hoover was very well aware at that time that that action and those behaviors were going to help define what the United States was going to be in the international arena; this was a demonstration of the nature of American global power. The United States comes out of the First World War as a global power, really for the first time in a serious way and Hoover understands that and he wants to position the United States as the kind of country that makes these kinds of gestures and does this kind of international good and acts on behalf of children; this is really important for him. And so, it really goes against this initial impulse to present ourselves that way in the world and I think it has everything to do with American politics, domestic politics rather than any intention to neglect children but it does not look good and obviously, I think it is time for us to reverse that course; although one could argue that the negative publicity this has already brought us has been very bad for our society.

SM: When we think about the future of childhood in the United States, what big issues stick out to you that will be facing children going forward in our country here?

PF: That is an enormous question. I am going to just tackle one small corner of it. As someone who has been interested in issues of globalization and has written something about it, I do think that the question of global competition for American children is a looming fact on the horizon. I think it has been clear even since the George Bush administration with our “No Child Left Behind” policy, that, as a society for a couple of centuries [we] had all kinds of advantages in terms of wealth and prosperity and a high-powered economy, that those advantages were no longer going to distinguish us in the world because the rest of the world was catching up, catching up in terms of education, where we had been way in the forefront, catching up in terms of health and child and infant mortality rates, catching up in terms of nutrition and the size of children and their growth patterns and catching up in all kinds of ways and surpassing us in many parts of the Western world, vastly surpassing us in terms of health, mortality, educational statistics and achievement levels. And so the kinds of advantages American children had, and which allowed them to imagine that their future would be better than their parent’s children and usually was, is no longer something that we can count on and you can see it, you can feel it when you teach college students, that their perception that the advantages of American children, which all had to do with the future, were no longer in place, that they could not depend on it. So I think the big looming challenge is how we now will compete in a world that is looking more and more like us or the way we thought we were, and which now puts the screws on our children. It is very difficult. For a long time, Americans prided themselves and were seen by the rest of the world as proponents of progressive education, proponents of progressive child rearing, all of which meant that children would be given periods of play and relaxation and allowed to grow and develop on their own as individuals and not set in some kind of pattern of repeating lessons and being just like their parents. That kind of individualism was the defining American concept of creativity that our children would be creative and create new creative futures for us as a society. And I think, when I say we put the screws on our children, I think we are now worried and have reduced the amount of leeway that our children have and we begin teaching them, seriously teaching them in kindergarten, which, by its very name is supposed to be a place where children play, and we begin, and the middle class parents especially, begin to be concerned about their futures very early on and so that whole period of childhood as a period of relaxation and play and where people could develop their own personalities, I think that is beginning to retreat. So we have a lot of things on our agenda that we are seeing our children as needing to fulfill. I would say that was the most important.

The second area I would put has to do with America’s multi-culturalism, that, as we are and have been a multi-cultural society, which has allowed for our development and our success and our very complex cultures, and today that kind of multi-culturalism is now again at the forefront but it is illustrating the degree to which there are major differences within the population in terms of the potential success of our children, both success in the future and success in the present, either in terms of their schooling or their health. There are large differentials between various parts of the population of the United States in health statistics, in schooling achievements, in infant mortality rates, even in vaccination rates, nutrition. There are children in our society today who work; there still are sweatshops in Los Angeles and in other places in the country. Most of those children are immigrant children. So we have things to compete with globally and we have things to catch up on domestically in terms of making sure that all our children, regardless of their background, have the best possible opportunities.

SM: And knowing the history around the turn of the twentieth century and sort of the reforms that went in place and movements and the development of child advocacy, here we are setting the stage for a new movement and what that will require from policymakers and families and schools.

PF: The movement in the early twentieth century was very obvious. It was led by certain people, largely college-educated women. Women were very much in the forefront of that movement in terms of protecting and advocating for children. They had very strong networks through which they communicated with each other, both domestically and internationally. These were women who had lots of international contacts. There were people from Sweden, to go back to the Swedish example, who came to the United States to observe our schools and to see how we were treating our children. So there was a real global network of a small group of, one would today describe them as privileged, women, most of whom did not work. I worry that today those networks are not as effectively defined, not as clearly interrelated and integrated and that there are not, in some ways, it is not as clear to me who these professional women and men who are going to protect children and be proponents of their rights internationally and domestically are, but I certainly hope that we are seeing another phase of that and I hope the United Nations convention can serve as a platform for that, because it is a very well-defined, potentially quite effective instrument from which we can begin to make assessments of what our children need and where they need to go. So I am hoping we can get the president involved, because the president’s Commission on Children, the White House Commission on Children in the early twentieth century, which began with Theodore Roosevelt and then Herbert Hoover and other presidents, were very important, actually, in defining reform agendas and they came up every twenty years. I wish that we would continue them, because they provide an important platform from which to spread information and it allows networks of individuals to get together and to become serious proponents. Most of what I see today kind of comes out of academics as a secondary expression of what you do as an academic, whether a historian or you are a lawyer or a legal scholar or a sociologist, and so your attention to children comes from that perspective rather than it being the center of your identity. So we will see. I hope that, in fact, we are looking at another moment when these things will come together.

SM: You have to wonder, with the current president, Barack Obama, having young children in the White House, to what degree that might influence more child-centered policies; just the mere presence of young children at the face of this country.

PF: Again, I think the comparison there with Theodore Roosevelt would be an interesting one. I mean, Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest president of the United States at that point. He had young children in the White House. And so I do think it kind of set a pattern and it would be wonderful to see President Obama and Mrs. Obama, Michelle Obama, becoming another basis for reimagining the possibilities for children in the United States and the rest of the world. It would be terrific to see the First Family with their children and their clear concern and commitment to their own children, and Mrs. Obama’s commitment to issues of nutrition for American children that might become a launch point for a much larger campaign. The difference, I think, and it is an important one, is that Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency was during a period of prosperity, when you could begin imagining doing things for others and right now we are not in the middle of prosperity, so it is harder to think about how the society could act on behalf of its children and it begins to squeeze them. In addition, I think the last thirty years, thirty-five years, have been one in which, and this is something I have done quite a lot of writing and research about, one in which there has been a sense of the privatization of responsibilities for children, where parents are expected to do everything for their children; they are supposed to be on top of everything. They are supposed to make sure that the schools work right. They are supposed to make sure that their children are safe. They are supposed to make sure that their children are not kidnapped. And so, instead of seeing this as mutual responsibility, as social responsibility, as community responsibilities, we have actually retreated from that in the last thirty-five years and I hope we now have turned a corner and we can move again toward a view of children as the largest investment that a society has and that its children are the future. I mean, that sounds very cliché, but it is definitely true and it has been what has allowed some of these organizations in the past to really move forward.

SM: What got you interested in children, the history of childhood? How did you get into this field of interest?

PF: One could argue that I helped to create the field itself, because it did not exist really when I started out as a historian and it took me a little while to realize that it was possible to actually investigate something as wonderful and as difficult to study as children historically because children, of course, do not leave many documents, although I have discovered they leave a lot more than we would assume. But I think it is my own family situation, my own background and past that allowed me to see this as an important field and to see children as important subjects. I think there still is in the historical profession a reluctance to study children because they do not have much power and there is a sense that you study the things that have the most prestige and, of course, children have the least prestige. But in my case, my parents were victims of the Holocaust and between them lost five children and I always knew that children were very important and that my own past was haunted by the absence of those children. And so, bringing out the lost children of the past, the ones that have been ignored, the ones who nobody studied, those who disappeared and never became adults, therefore could not have an adult history, were things that I saw and possibly others might not see. And history is like that; you have to be able to imagine things and see them in the past because the past is behind us rather than in front of us, but I think it is all around us and so it is our obligation to see it in its full terms and see all of its participants as having a history. So I have tried to do some of that.