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Other World(s): Childhood, Nation, and the Price of Feeling Good

Fri, November 7, 8:00 to 9:45am, Westin Bonaventure, Floor: Level 1, Santa Anita A (L1)

Session Submission Type: Paper Session: Traditional Format


Note: This panel is being sponsored by the Childhood and Youth Studies Caucus.

In the modern era, both parents and heads of state have made much of children’s fundamental right to happiness. In the early twentieth century, as activists worked to remove children from the labor force and to enforce mandatory schooling, children’s relative satisfaction became a public benchmark of national success, while children’s pain served as a sign of societal failure. Today, middle-class American parents concerned about their children’s futures in a global world are described as hovering anxiously like helicopters. This panel considers the child as a marker of horror and hope, pleasure and anxiety, in relations with families and local communities, and as an icon of national and global citizenship. At all of these levels of encounter, we ask about adults’ emotional investment in childhood. To what extent, for example, has this investment been determined by the relative success of the family or the economy? How did the child-pleasing ideal make possible new alternatives to the status quo, or suggest the emotional and economic cost of living otherwise?

In order to answer these questions, we place current anxieties about the “post-American century” into dialogue with the past and consider the intergenerational price of feeling good. Julia Mickenberg begins this discussion by focusing on Anglo-American Quaker child saving efforts during the 1921 Russian famine. Mickenberg suggests the ways in which the dialectics of horror and hope (the child vulnerable to starvation/the child promising a new era/the child vulnerable to Bolshevism) that played out around Russian famine relief made vivid and portended the ideological and political lenses through which modern children came to be understood as vulnerable, delightful, or terrifying. Leslie Paris continues our conversation about the dialectic of pleasure and pain with an analysis of American mothers’ conversations in online cloth diapering communities. These communities, Paris argues, serve as a space where mothers can transform one of the most mundane activities of childrearing into a pleasurable one. Carol Singley engages with another form of parenting that has gained recent attention: “helicopter parenting.” Singley views helicopter parenting as a sign of parents’ belief in their child’s vulnerability and their capacity for destruction—children, that is, must be both protected and controlled. Finally, Emily Murphy asserts that international discussions of “global” childhood can inform the recent initiative to develop a global approach to American studies. Using a case study of Chang Ta-Chun’s bestselling Taiwanese children’s novel, Wild Child (1996), Murphy explains how anxiety about children’s happiness and wellbeing can also place into relief the U.S.’s engagement in international politics.

Our panelists answer the American Studies Association’s request to “get serious about fun, pleasure, and happiness” by exploring moments where adults perceive childhood, a time many associate with innocence and pleasure, as threatened. In doing so, we explore the part childhood plays in local, national, and international efforts to create other worlds where joy, happiness, and bliss is the norm rather than the exception.

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