Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

A Child's Life

Volume 25 Number 2
Spring 2003

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man with children
William Corsaro with children from Head Start.
Photo Tyagan Miller

A Childhood of Their Own

by Karen Grooms

William Corsaro rummages among the books and papers on his desk until he finds a slick, colorful brochure advertising cruises to Tahiti. He flips to a photograph of a young boy, features alive in mischievous glee, with the caption “Here’s Someone You Won’t Run Into.” Beneath the photo, a blurb describes the company’s “kid-free” cruises in terms that assume its readers consider children a nuisance—something like secondhand smoke.

What does Corsaro think of such a marketing ploy? “I think it’s alarming,” he says. “What’s even more alarming is that some people think it’s funny.”

Corsaro, Indiana University Bloomington’s Robert H. Shaffer Class of 1967 Endowed Professor of Sociology, worries about the status of children in U.S. society and in many parts of the world. Throughout his career, he’s studied the effects on young people of a dispiriting list of social problems including poverty, violence, child abuse and neglect, high divorce rates, teen pregnancy, social stratification and segregation, and the underdeveloped social consciences of many policymakers. He is hopeful, however, that research such as his, based on children’s own perspectives, will lead to greater understanding of what children need to enjoy safer, healthier, more positive childhoods.

Traditionally, academic theories about the role of children in society have rarely centered on children themselves. Instead, Corsaro has written, theorists have adhered to “the individualistic doctrine that regards children’s social development solely as the child’s private internalization of adult skills and knowledge.” Corsaro sees it differently.

Through decades of extensive fieldwork—long-term residencies in preschools and other institutional settings for young children, where he eventually becomes accepted as a member of the children’s community (“a sort of ‘big kid,’” he says)—Corsaro has documented the phenomenon that he describes as “children’s unique peer culture.” He defines children’s peer culture as “a stable set of activities or routines, artifacts, values, and concerns that children produce and share in interaction with peers.” Children form their own cultures through a process he calls “interpretive reproduction.” In other words, children create their own idiosyncratic worlds, based on adult society, where they come up with their own ways of teaching each other how to relate to the world.

Many glimpses of this child-generated innovation and creativity appear in Corsaro’s The Sociology of Childhood, a textbook widely used in college sociology classes in the United States and abroad since its 1997 publication. One example: In the mid-1980s, a group of children on an Italian preschool playground were carrying a large plastic milk carton over their heads, chanting, “Arriva la banca!” (“Here comes the bank!”). Corsaro, who had been observing the class for many months, questioned the children. Were they saying “barca” (“boat”)? No, they explained, it was a traveling bank. Delighted by the idea of a bank that makes house calls, Corsaro asked to make a withdrawal, to which the children responded by disbursing “40,000 lire” in rocks from the carton. Then they proceeded around the playground, repeating their chant.

Such originality is typically observed in the play of children who spend a lot of time together, Corsaro says. Although much of his research has taken place in the Italian child-care and primary education system (which he ranks among the best in the world), he has also conducted extensive studies in the United States, in settings such as Head Start classes in urban areas and in private preschools attended by children from upper-income families. In early spring 2003, Corsaro traveled to Trondheim, Norway, on a Fulbright Senior Specialist Grant to study childhood socialization at Norwegian University’s Centre for Child Research.

Corsaro says such cross-cultural analyses show that despite obvious differences in surroundings and circumstances, “children everywhere contribute to their own socialization.”

A particular aspect of children’s unique socializing behavior attracted Corsaro’s attention early on: how does an individual child succeed in joining a group of children who are already engaged in play or conversation? In a study titled “We’re Friends, Right?: Children’s Use of Access Rituals in a Nursery School” (1978), Corsaro identified the complex, sophisticated rules of interaction that young children devise in order to initiate and maintain their group activities.

He described the actions of two 4-year-old girls, Jenny and Betty, as they played in a sandbox with dishes and pots and pans. They were approached by a third girl, Debbie, who observed them silently for several minutes. At last, Debbie attempted to join in the play by reaching for a teapot in the sand, but was rebuffed by Jenny, who took the teapot away from Debbie and mumbled, “No.”

As Corsaro watched, Debbie backed away briefly and then tried a new plan. She turned to Betty and said, “We’re friends, right?” Without looking up at Debbie, Betty answered “Right” and continued to play. Debbie then began spooning sand into a pot and said, “I’m making coffee.” Betty said, “I’m making cupcakes” to Debbie, and to Jenny, “We’re mothers, right, Jenny?” Jenny agreed, and the three girls played together until their teacher announced cleanup time.

“Children tend to be very protective of their play,” Corsaro says. “If another child tries to enter, that child is likely to be rejected. From an adult point of view, Jenny and Betty weren’t sharing at first. But to my mind they were sharing something with each other, something that could be easily disrupted by another child who didn’t understand the rules of the game (‘We’re mothers’) or by an adult. If a teacher had come along and told them that they had to share, that actually could have been disruptive.” But, reassured by the indirectness of Debbie’s “access strategy,” Jenny and Betty took a chance on expanding their game to include someone who had shown she was unlikely to destroy it.

Corsaro cites other examples of children’s special ways of creating and preserving their own culture. “Small children are very good at improvisation,” he says. “With little effort, a stapler becomes a truck; a book becomes a monster. Most children also act out rituals of danger and rescue—imagining floods, tidal waves, fires, being lost, and so on. Or they take turns pretending to be monsters. They also take great satisfaction in subtly challenging adult rules. For example, in a day-care center where children officially were not allowed to bring possessions from home, I found the children would bring very small possessions—things that could be hidden in their pockets—and play with them in groups.”

Although similarities can be found in children’s peer cultures everywhere, great divides also exist, Corsaro says. His years of studying Italy’s child care and education system, which is supported by the country’s generous social welfare policies, have sharply focused Corsaro’s view of the problems many children experience.

“The Italian preschool system has an enormous effect on children’s culture and children’s transition into the elementary years,” he says. “Lately I’ve been looking at how children undergo periods of transition in their lives, and how the institutions such as preschools help them.”

One reason he approves so strongly of the Italian system is because of the high measure of stability that it provides, even when children move among different levels of schooling. “In the preschools and elementary schools, children remain with the same cohort for long periods of time,” Corsaro says, “and in elementary school, the same group of children has the same teacher for five years. When the 5-year-olds are getting ready to enter elementary school, much effort is spent on their preparation.”

In fact, the entire community gets involved, even sponsoring citywide festivals to honor the 5-year-olds as they progress to a new stage in their lives. “In contrast, many American kids in Head Start, for example, have trouble in their transition to elementary school, with new teachers, new classmates, and often an entirely new mainstream culture,” Corsaro says.

In general, Corsaro has found that Italian children—indeed, Italians of all age groups—are celebrated for their contributions to society and encouraged to interact with one another. The United States has much room for improvement in this regard, he says.

“U.S. lives are very age-segregated. In Italy, children often see their grandparents. Here we have a lack of understanding and even a fear of some age groups—especially adolescents,” Corsaro says. “We have open age-discrimination—for example, communities that don’t accept children. That isn’t allowed in many other countries.”

Corsaro speaks passionately about the United States’ need for a new spirit of civic engagement to address children’s most pressing social problems, problems that are robbing them of the childhoods they deserve. A renewed ideal of a civic society could fuel greater public investment in children in the United States, Corsaro says, just as it inspired the creation of social programs for the elderly two generations ago.

In the 1960s, a shift in U.S. attitudes toward meeting the needs of the elderly occurred, and the resulting programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and expanded Social Security) pulled millions of older Americans out of poverty. According to Corsaro, the poverty rate for persons 65 years and older in 1960 was around 30 percent, but by 1994 it had fallen to 12 percent, largely because of government programs that support the elderly.

“Some people say we don’t need new social programs for children, that your children are your responsibility,” Corsaro says. “But it used to be said that your parents are your responsibility.”

Our nation’s children have not fared well, he continues: “The general trend is up for the elderly and down for children.”

More than 12 percent of American children are part of families who live in poverty. Helping these millions of children must have a much higher priority, Corsaro says. He supports the passage, and enforcement, of child support laws to ensure that fathers meet their responsibilities, and he ticks off a list of other needed measures: universal health-care coverage, as well as expansion of the earned income tax credit (a refundable tax credit for low-income families with children), an increase in programs that combat teen pregnancy and work to prevent child abuse, and the deployment of many more community-minded police officers in violence-torn urban areas “where children experience the worst kind of fear you can imagine every day of their lives,” he says.

Corsaro would also like to see all employers honor a paid family leave program for parents after the birth of a child. (The current Family and Medical Leave Act, initiated during the Clinton administration, is unpaid and limited in other ways). Ideally, such projects would arise at the national level, Corsaro says, but he is encouraged by developments in some states, such as improved health-care coverage for children in California and Oregon.

Corsaro also stresses the need for free child-care and preschool for all 3-to-5-year-old children and full-day kindergarten in the United States, a major theme in his forthcoming book We’re Friends, Right? Inside Children’s Cultures (Joseph Henry Press). “With its lottery income, Georgia is now funding a year in preschool for every 4-year-old in the state,” he says. “Paying for programs such as these is challenging, but social problems are going to cost us a lot more in the future if we don’t take care of them.” Positive educational experiences in the early years “instill in us a spirit and a sense of security and confidence that we carry with us throughout our lives,” Corsaro says.

In the developing world, Corsaro detects some promising signs such as reductions in child mortality, some diseases, and malnutrition. Such successes are a foundation for the future, he observes: “Cultures that invest in their children, that shelter, nourish, and challenge their young, that hold high expectations for their future generations, will survive and flourish.”

Karen Grooms is senior editor in the IU Office of Publications in Bloomington.

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