Robert Coles: The Political Life of Children

Robert Coles, child psychiatrist, educator and writer, best known for his series Children in Crises, has recently written two books on the moral and political life of children. Coles began work on The Political Life of Children in the 1960s, when he began to question his past indifference toward matters explicitly political in his conversations with children. He refers to a discussion with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in which Dr. King remarked on the seeming "luxury" for white people, in "their capacity to turn their backs on politics, while at the same time holding on to their power".

Coles describes how he began to wonder if this analysis included him. Was his "seeming indifference...itself an expression of a kind of politics or at least, the result of a specific kind of political education?". He reviewed taped interviews conducted during a study of school desegregation in the early 1960, and found himself "surprised" by what he referred to as the "chronic inability even to recognize the political implications of what we were hearing from both black and white children...a sort of running political commentary by boys and girls who were, after all, involved in a dramatic moment of history". "A longstanding suspicion of political ideology," he states, "had blinded me to the most ordinary, everyday expressions in the young and their elders, of political perceptions".

Coles' growing sense of children's political expressiveness became a full-scale investigation of the way in which children develop their political self. One black woman, interviewed in 1964 during a voter-registration drive in Mississippi, stated:

I learned my politics when I was a little girl. My daddy would tell me that I'm 100% colored, and that means that I'm 100% ineligible to vote, and that means I'm supposed to be an American citizen but I'm not one.

When, in 1965, a six-year old black child was asked who was the current president, she replied that she didn't know, but that, "they killed President Kennedy and they killed Medgar Evers." When asked who "they" were, she stated, "the people who don't like us" "they" were, she stated, "the people who don't like us", In his work with Pueblo, Hopi and Navajo Indians, Coles finds "children who are Americans but who, at the same time, belonged to another 'nation'...children who were keenly aware of their double allegiances".

Coles describes his process as a "cross-cultural study of 'political socialization'...a study of the political consciousness of young citizens of various countries." Using his customary tools - a tape recorder, paper, crayons and paints, he has traveled in the United States, Northern Ireland, England, Nicaragua, Canada, Poland, Cambodia, Thailand, Brazil and South Africa. Over a period of 10 years he interviewed and reinterviewed children as they grew closer to adult hood.

His study provides crucial insights for understanding child development, and the social and political forces which conditions - enhance or retard - a child's psychic growth. It also sheds light on another issue. Not only does society affect the political thoughts of children, but this early political development in childhood sustains society. In the opening chapter, "Political Authority and the Young," Coles poses the question:

How does a nation maintain a notion of itself over a span of time - so that policies pursued by one government, with or without the consent of a particular citizenry, become policies believed in, accepted by succeeding generations or men and women?

In answer to his question, Coles refers to "sustained convictions" and the development of "myths" that are passed down by word of mouth, books, newspapers and the electronic media.

For staying power, political authority needs to become an object of belief if not faith - especially among those who live closest to the center of things…

A highly organized state is able to paralyze its adversaries' reactions by overpowering their imagination.

Drawing on the work of Fred Greenstein's book Children and Politics, Coles concurs that there is nothing contemporary about the idea that children require a systematic political education.

Plato was what we would call a "psychologically oriented" philosopher, well aware of the need each society has for the transmission of values and assumptions - and of political loyalty. Rousseau takes up the matter of political education in great length as if he knew that at some moment a "social contract" lives or dies in the homes and schools where children learn what (and whom) to believe in. Napoleon observed that "as long as children are not taught whether they ought to be Republican or Monarchist, Catholic or irreligious, the State will not form a Nation".

According to Greenstein, Socialization processes foster the status quo through the perpetuation of class and sex differences in political participation, continuity between the generations in party preferences, continuation (and perhaps even strengthening) of adult assessments of the relative importance of political institutions.

Coles continues this line of thought:

Presumably at some time a child begins to develop assumptions about his or her situation as an individual. The country beckons, or it doesn't; political order is just or...crooked to the core; the people who hold office, near and far, can be counted upon, or are, quite definitely, enemies, or indifferent...Race awareness, we know, takes root among preschool children; by three or four, they not only spot others who are black or white, or Indian or Chicano, but are quick to come up with pejorative or congratulatory remarks, tied to the person recognized as "other".

Noting children's ability to be quite outspoken politically, Coles draws a Freudian analogy between sexual and political expression, and their "repression" as a direct result of socialization. Coles refers to the observations of Robert Connell in Child's Construction of Politics, specifically the notion of "intuitive political thinking." According to Connell,

Young and not-so-young children...not only show evidence of "socialization," but of surprisingly outspoken, idiosyncratic, blunt, and imaginative political opinions. They can poke fun at the self-important...and wryly take on subjects the rest of us have learned to skirt or get at indirectly.

Along with the political ideas conveyed to children by their elders, they also learn that free expression of these ideas is sometimes unwise. For example, a Pueblo Indian mother told Coles,

I have to tell my children what to say, and what not to say, when they talk with Anglos. I think you learn to keep some thoughts - well, keep them out of your mind completely. If you don't, you're headed for trouble.

"This evocation of Freud's 'reality principle,'" as Coles refers to it, is what usually turns candid children into reticent adults. As Connell notes,

After the exuberant half-political fantasy of some of our children at the intuitive stage, the political outlooks become a rehash personal control over political materials in adolescence is flattened.

Although it seems clear that Coles is convinced that early childhood political education is a major contributing factor to a person's point of view as an adult, he cautions that "political inclination has a developmental history." Conversely, he states, almost in a warning, that those political lessons which become submerged within the individual due to socializing factors may rise again without warning.

One must shun the temptation to leap from the child's political awareness to the adult's political behavior...The attitude that children take toward political authority, toward those who rule them...is but one element in their developing lives...Not everything...gets shunted aside into those "deeper" layers of mind that psychiatrists study. The poor, the racially excluded, the subdued...the constantly exploited or humiliated who live in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and certainly in every part of Africa, have had a way, history shows, of holding on, as Freud says people do, to their earliest impressions, and treating them, in later years, as important reference points - a means, actually, of interpreting "reality".

In fact, both clinicians and historians have reason to know that in the lives of individuals and nations alike there is simply no way of knowing at what moment an apparently unremarkable, even unknowable set of feelings or attitudes will suddenly appear...as utterly critical and persuasive in the life of a person or a community of people.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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