What You Do to Children Matters: Memory, Crisis and the Myth of Childhood Innocence

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The purpose of this paper is to explore the ways that the American myth of childhood innocence perpetuates the racist logics that inform early childhood education. As Joanne Faulkner (2013) notes, this narrative “attracts a great deal of cultural attention and energy, both positive and negative” as a “privileged site not only of concern, celebration, and protection, but also of anxiety” (p. 127). That anxiety, fueled by nostalgia for our remembered childhoods as well as our desire to protect our children from any traumas we might have endured, drives many parents to protect their children from harm and even mild discomfort, in turn constructing “innocence” as a marker of class privilege. The term “child” is a thus a contested one, as it operates as “a highly potent discursive tool that is invoked to shape, limit, or foreclose arguments about social and material relations between individuals and classes of people in this country” (Sammond, 2005, p. 3). Where education is concerned, the normative concept of the child as innocent and vulnerable has long driven the policies and practices that shape early childhood education, including what is taught and how and what topics are considered “appropriate.” And yet, just as educational opportunities have been historically and intentionally unequal, so too is access to the privilege of childhood innocence, which is assigned to some children and not others. Where was this assumption of innocence when 12-year old Tamir Rice was killed by a Cleveland police officer? And yet, the innocent child is prized, cherished, held up as a cultural icon, allowing us to assign greater value to those child bodies that can be protectively segregated from the harsh realities of adulthood, and enabling some children to escape an early awareness of injustice and human depravity. In this paper, I suggest that a radical reconceptualization of childhood innocence is necessary in order to advance more equitable and socially responsive early childhood policies and practices. I assert that childhood innocence operates as a cultural fetish, the value of which is to “obscure the real” and “keep matters unchallenging and uncomplicated” so that adults, as desiring subjects, can maintain an illusion of fulfillment (Faulkner, 2013, p. 128). To illustrate this psychology of innocence and its material consequences in contemporary America, I conduct a close reading of Toni Morrison’s (2015) most recent novel God Help the Child, which explores how memory, crisis, and the longing for innocence impact the lives of the two main characters, from the psychological and physical violence of childhood to the emotional crises of adulthood. Morrison’s novel offers a striking social commentary on the ways in which we are inevitably drawn toward the myth of innocence, in spite of its injustices. Ultimately, Morrison reminds us that the narratives of childhood – the stories that we tell ourselves about our child selves and the children we parent and teach – are important in shaping the decisions that we make as adults. As Morrison writes, “What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”


American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting (AERA)


San Antonio, TX