Insights: Prof. Cindi Katz on “Good Childhood, Social Childhood”

A gleaning of some of the insights shared during the conference on Children and Youth in an Interconnected World, full of presentations from a broad range of distinguished speakers, all talking about the role of children and youth in this fast-changing world.

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Good Childhood, Social Childhood

Professor Cindi Katz, City University of New York, starts her lecture by asking the question what do we mean by ‘good’? Asking this and without wanting to getting a banal answer, it turns out to be a difficult question, a more difficult question than asking what is ‘bad’. The messy spaces of civil society form the geographies of social reproduction, shaped by political economic processes and by struggles to survive and resist those processes. Without social justice, there is not going to be healthy social reproduction and security.

Social childhood becomes more vulnerable in the intimate and global struggles we find today in the neo-liberal globalization. Children are part of several social structures and webs of care, in which they learn a sense of belonging, a shared and fluid field of learning and practice. These communities are fluid and changing and striving, but stable, in which horizontal and embodied learning takes place.

Any notion of good childhood is a profoundly social one. An important point is that we cannot achieve a good childhood if we leave behind so many children dispossessed and the lost generations whose loss if now felt throughout the world. Also there is a need to recognize that children are capable, with access to their own space, their own bodies. Another aspect of good childhood is the recognition of childhood as a period of ‘becoming’ and ‘being’, and the opportunity and space to play and stretch concepts of their being. The playing, the mimesis, in which we make our world is a powerful element of self-making and self-organization which provides the ground of our civilization.


Relating to her experiences in Sudan, Prof. Katz shows captivating images, talking about the social childhoods she encountered there. She recognizes how good childhood consists of a connection in time, place and meaning – not the disconnection of gated communities. Work and play are fused, creating spaces of autonomy and encompassing extended families. Children are monitored as well as respected. The experience of safety instead of an environment filled by fear profoundly influences the way of learning as a community.

Should we look, when asking about the goodness of childhood, only at how well these children are prepared for the future? This privileges becoming, and stuckness as the arena of childhood, and isn’t this exactly what does not make a good childhood? Is there a process of de-skilling happening? We can find any development in the range from resilience to resistance, and which development is dependent on the financial background of the communities where the children grow up? Low-income communities require more time and resources to get by.

Communities started to realize that education needs to be rethought, as new skills were necessary for the required levels of resilience necessary. This new emerging relation to education which Prof. Katz found when she returned to Sudan years later, is remarkable. This same process happens in the neighborhoods in New York where the shift in society within non-white communities led to unsafe spaces and all too often shapes childhood to go from birth to Harvard without going outside of the bubble that parents provide. Adventure-playgrounds have closed due to safety-fears. This limits self-governance, serendipity and the opportunity of doing nothing – a vibrant source of creativity and testing one’s limits.

We should abandon the middle-class hysteria about ‘good childhood’ which erodes social childhood. Paying for a childhood that degrades privatized solution, managing instead of providing solutions to the problems that compromised childhood. This has led her to look at childhood as spectacle – it concerns plenty of insecurities but the way to address is has been about managing, including managing the child. This child as accumulation, ornament, as commodity and as waste. These practices are a Foucauldian process, continuing to keep the differences between one’s own child and having little interest in other children.

Instead Professor Katz looks at a good, a social childhood full of mimesis and creating whole worlds, with a possible flash of recognition that their world could be different. Even if it never happens, this recognition is a reservoir for having an aspiration for a better world that we can create. She looks at the movement she encountered in Sudan, a community that did not bunker one’s own children, but created an environment focused on collectivity instead of individuality.

Read more about the conference here, organised by the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace taking place at the University of Maryland, 28-29 September 2016.

Photo Credit: benoit.moser Flickr via Compfight cc.

About the author

Nicole des Bouvrie_n_ is a continental philosopher and a visiting scholar during autumn 2016 at the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace. She works as a freelance philosopher all around the world, applying structures of thought to practical problems. She is interested in radical change and feminine thinking.
For more information about Nicole: personal website, Twitter.

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