Finding childhood source material is truly challenging
I was just sort of curious about changing perspectives on the value of children’s voices. Do you think that they were hard to find because, for a long time, people just didn’t think that children had much to share, so they didn’t save them? What’s your sense about that?
Well, they were hard to find because childhood itself is not a category of analysis in the organization of archives.
So it continues to be an issue.
When I started writing Dependent States, I used a lot of children’s diaries. And I would go to the Library of Congress and say, “I would like to look at your children’s diaries,” and they would say, “We don’t have any children’s diaries.” And then you would sit down and find people’s ages and you would do subtraction and figure out, “All right. This is someone who was 10 years old when they….”
I think of it as like doing women’s studies in the ’70s, where, again, you are finding systems weren’t structured by gender. So you were guessing on the basis of people’s first names. “Is this a woman, right?” So, in a similar kind of way, you have to figure out people’s ages. The materials are collected for some other adult participant, but then there’ll be this kind of childhood detritus that comes along with it.
I think it’s a particular thing about Marín, that in his brand of populism, that the children wrote to him and that the government made a box of those, right?
Well, he was a popular governor, so they saw him as the father of the nation and so they appealed to him in that capacity. It was always familial. Purdue has an excellent photographic collection in the general archive for the 1940s and ’50s, because the government was going through a stage of industrialization and modernization. The intention of the photographs, state-sponsored, was to document progress, right? So, let’s document the building of schools as they transition from wood to cement buildings. Let’s document the building of homes, public schools, health clinics, new neighborhoods. It was about cement. Cement was modernization.
So I went through all the photographs and when there was a school building, there’s children on the corner. If there’s a health clinic, there are mothers and children lining up. If it’s about workers, there are children who are bootblacks or newspaper vendors or they’re washing cars. If it’s about this magnificent new cement street, there are children playing or working in the streets.
Children were everywhere. But it was not a category. So then I realized I just have to adjust my lens and I have to think, “Where would the children be?”
When we were editing the journal, I felt like part of my job was to look at what people were doing and say, “You know, that really is about children, right?” There are children in it, but it wasn’t how people were conceptualizing or organizing that work. And I think that is, in part, historical, and it’s also a status thing: it doesn’t feel as important to say that it’s about children as to say it’s about cement. Or modernization, I guess.
Carrie, you have been studying preschoolers, so you don’t even have the virtue of accessing letters being written.
No, they’re not very good writers.
So, that poses its own challenges, I’m sure.
Sure. Yeah, I think part of why I was curious and asked Solsi that question, about whether [lack of childhood as a category] has some sort of value judgment about childhood, was that we have to design studies to tap into what children are thinking about before they can really explicitly talk about their thought processes in a sort of meta way. This can often come across as very simplistic to adults. Very game-like.
A lot of my research involves hiding things under cups and asking kids to look for those items. We, as developmental psychologists, do spend quite a bit of time trying to explain how that actually taps into a much deeper, broader, theoretical question.
I’ve always loved how, when you have studies that are about babies, the measuring tool is how long they stare at something.
Right, exactly. Luckily, over decades now of using eye tracking and gaze, data people are pretty much on board most of the time, that that’s a legitimate way of measuring what babies are thinking. But it’s been a long road to get people to agree on that. That’s another great example.