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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Michael Wyness about his co-authored book, Kid Power, Inequalities and Intergenerational Relations

Our member, Dr Michael Wyness (University of Warwick, UK) talks about his new book, co-authored with Clara Rübner Jørgensen (University of Birmingham, UK), Kid Power, Inequalities and Intergenerational Relations (Anthem Press, 2021).


Q: What is the book about?

Contemporary understandings of inter-generational relations often take for granted that the balance of power has shifted from adults towards children. The rise of children’s rights, and in particular the participatory power of children, the trend towards more child-centred pedagogies and practices within schools and heightened global status of children as consumers - all of these have been interpreted as the loss of adult power and the consequent growth of ‘kid power’.

In this book we critically examine these ideas and challenge the zero-sum conceptions of power implicit within these assumptions. We draw on Lukes’ three dimensions of power and Foucault’s notion of power as regimes of knowledge and ‘truth’ to propose an alternative theory of kid power as inter-generational, multi-dimensional and distributed variably across the child population.

The book draws on a number of themes and cases in illustrating this theory. We focus on the formative roles that children play as mediators within their families in a range of quite diverse social and economic contexts. We highlight the political roles that children inhabit at local, national and global levels, including climate strikes and working children’s unions. We focus on the way that children and adults construct and regulate digital power and we examine kid power in terms of children’s collaboration within a research context.  In the final chapter we reflect on kid power and inter-generational relations in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Q: What made the two of you write the book?

Children play a relatively minor role within theories of power. With a few exceptions, the literature on children’s rights, agency and participation also seldom includes explicit reference to theories of power. With this book, we wanted to respond to these gaps. We felt that in the context of childhood, power would benefit from being discussed in less normative ways, avoiding easy conclusions about its either positive or negative effects. We also believed that an analysis of power through the lens of childhood would enable important and additional insights to emerge, for example around the complexities of shifting and culturally diverse notions of protection and responsibility, and their interrelation with children’s capacity to act and change the actions of others.

The book was written to propose a framework for understanding kid power, which takes into account not only conflicting agendas but also intergenerational relations, dialogues and collaboration. The critical and explicit focus on theories of power in the book has helped illustrate some of the many complexities and levels upon which power may operate in the context of childhood. In addition, the analysis of intra-generational power between different groups and individual children has enabled an in-depth analysis of power in children’s diverse lives and the way in which it plays out in different contexts, for example in families, communities, on social media and in research.

An excerpt from the book:

The last 30 years have seen significant changes in the ways children are conceptualised within research, policy and practice. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN 1989) established children as individual holders of rights to survival and development, protection and participation. Particularly participation rights have become associated with children’s rights to have a voice and power over decisions of relevance to them (Montgomery, 2010). An increasing number of countries have incorporated children’s rights into policies and practice, some by integrating children’s participation rights into national constitutions, others by building them into child specific legislations (European Commission, 2015), for example education or welfare services (Heimer et al., 2018; Križ and Skivenes, 2017). Schools and other childhood settings and organisations often make reference to the rights of children to have a say over matters of importance to them, although this is interpreted significantly different across countries. Within research, it is also generally acknowledged that children’s experiences need to be included and studied in their own right (Christensen and James, 2008a; Kellet et al., 2004; O’Kane, 2008; Prout, 2005; Wyness, 2015), and that children must be considered as research subjects rather than as objects of research  (Horgan, 2017; Kellet, 2005).

There is now a well-established body of literature on children’s rights and agency (James, 2011; Oswell, 2013; Smith, 2007) which incorporates the idea that children have global entitlements and makes research-based assumptions about children’s capacities and contributions. Within this literature, the rights of children to have a voice, exercise agency and participate in matters of importance to them is often associated, and at times conflated with the idea that children have more power. Common sense and public commentary on childhood also tends to assume that children’s power derives from the increase in legal and political arrangements that give children an opportunity to make a difference to their lives and those around them. This linkage between rights, agency, participation and power presents the basis for one model of what we in this book refer to as kid power 

The concept of ‘power’ is widely acknowledged as the capacity of an actor to get other actors to do something which they would not otherwise have done (Dahl, 1968; Weber, 1978). In the context of childhood, this capacity is mostly attributed to adults who, given their power, are able to control and shape the actions of children. However, kid power has also increasingly become a feature of a Northern conception of childhood where children’s right to participate, combined with the idea that they have ‘agency,’ has led to a multitude of claims with regards to their increased level of power. This is often associated with a decreased level of adult power, assuming a zero-sum conflictual notion of power and a dichotomous division between children and adults. For example, amongst those who advocate for children’s participation in research, there is a tendency to focus on how unequal adult-child power relations shape the research encounter and how adults may ‘hand over’ power to children in the research process (Holland et al., 2010). Typologies of children’s participation in research, such as Hart’s (1997) adaptation of Arnstein's (1969) ‘ladder of citizen participation’ similarly tend to represent a simplified view of child versus adult power which marginalises relationships between them and assumes a zero-sum conception of power in adult–child interactions (Birch et al., 2017; Hinton, 2008).

Zero-sum and binary conceptions of power also seem to prevail in arguments against the promotion of children’s rights and participation. For example, Howe and Covell (2005)  discuss an election being organised by UNICEF Canada for school children in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the UNCRC, where the children were asked to debate and vote on the importance of children’s rights in different areas of their lives. This initiative drew strong opposition from a number of organisations, who argued, amongst other things, that teaching children about their rights would undermine family and parental authority.

Consumption is another example of an area where children’s increasing ‘power’ over their parents has been interpreted in a predominantly zero-sum manner. Here the negative and derogatory concept of ‘pester power’ has been used to describe children’s ‘attempts to exert influence over parental purchases in a repetitive and sometimes confrontational way’ (Nicholls and Cullen, 2004: 77). Although there are also more positive ways of looking at child-parent purchase relations (Lawlor and Prothero, 2011), these examples illustrate a common perception of kid power as binary and conflictual, assuming that children and adults have fundamentally different agendas and that intergenerational encounters are shaped by negotiations or struggles over whose agenda should prevail.

In this book we wish to propose a different, wider and less binary framework for understanding kid power. Our framework is based on three main propositions. The first proposition is that kid power should be understood,  not only as zero-sum, with children gaining power at the expense of adults, but also as positive-sum (Haugaard, 2017) with children and adults jointly emerging as potentially more powerful. This interpretation involves a more consensual understanding of power in intergenerational relations, a fuller acknowledgement of  interdependency and commonalities between adults and children (Percy-Smith, 2010) and a broader focus on dialogue and collaboration as ‘arenas’ for power, alongside potential conflicts.

The second proposition is that differences of power are not only inter-generational, but also fundamentally intra-generational. To understand kid power, we thus need to incorporate and analyse the diverse responses of different kinds of adults (parents, teachers, policy makers, etc) to children’s actions, and pay close attention to power inequalities between children within and across countries.

Finally, the third proposition presented in the book is that kid power is multi-dimensional and needs to be analysed as such. Discussions about the presumed increased levels of kid power, both amongst those who frame it as a ‘positive’ and those who see it as more ‘negative’, tend to predominantly focus on children participating in or making decisions, and exercising their power by ‘having a voice’. Drawing on theories of power, this element however only represents one dimension or ‘face’ of power (Bachrach and Baratz, 1979; Lukes, 2005) and may obscure more covert dimensions of power.



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