In Loco Parentis: Redefining Childhood through State-Sponsored Child Protection Initiatives in the Twentieth Century
The twentieth-century marks a turning point in global ideas about childhood and the responsibility of governments to act in parental capacities in the interest of shaping childhood norms. In the wake of World War I, children’s rights and well-being become an important issue on humanitarian agendas and this prompted a wave of government action on behalf of children. This panel examines the multiple forms child protection took in a variety of contexts in the twentieth century: vocational schools for delinquent children in Jamaica, prosecuting sexual violence against child street vendors, and establishing a minimum age of consent in the United States. Each contributor analyzes age as a factor in larger gendered debates about citizenship, sexual violence in the informal economy, and consensual sex in the twentieth century.
The papers in this panel explore how colonial and nation-state governments attempted to shape childhood norms and in doing so redefined the term child. During the twentieth century, the League of Nations and the United Nations debated the universality of childhood norms and passed declarations on the rights of the child in 1924, 1959 and 1989. Together these papers point to areas of consensus about childhood across cultures: colonial powers believed labor to be a valuable component of colonial children’s lives, children were viewed as asexual and the government had a responsibility to preserve it as such and punish transgressions from this norm, and that community organizations had a role to play in child protection. Shani Roper and Jessica Reuther add the complexity of colonial prejudices and metropolitan priorities to discussions of child labor in colonial Jamaica and Dahomey, respectively. Roper and Tim Cole analyze the participation of community members’ in the debates of childhood norms and state sponsored projects. Reuther and Cole examine the ideal of the asexual child and how French colonial and American societies respectively expressed their anxieties concerning children’s sexuality. All three presenters examine the profound gendered implications of states’ efforts on children’s behalf.