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Innocent but not Ignorant

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Innocent but not Ignorant

The image of childhood perpetuated by the media is often of middle class white children living in a white picket fence enclosed space, with their mom, dad, and dog, all happily living together in a rich, white, suburban neighborhood. But this depiction has a blatant lack of representation for the many children who do not fit the description but still live happy and fulfilled lives. The depiction also ignores the childhood pressures that complicate children’s relationship with play. At the same time, children are painted as ignorant of real-life issues, when in reality, children are aware of life’s tough challenges. Representations of children’s play need to be expanded to reflect the complexities of a child’s life as well as as the diversity of experiences among children. The hardships that children experience are an integral part to their play, and should not be ignored or seen as the opposite of play. At last, children transform these hardships into play, providing a different perspective that leads to more fun in their lives.

“The mythical childhood of the mainstream imagination turns children into two-dimensional cartoons, devoid of emotional depth, and immune from the world’s oppressive structures. It flattens all children into stock photos—white, typically developing, stereotypically gendered, and climbing on a well-maintained playground against the sunset” (Kenfel). Molly Knefel argues in “Kid Stuff” that children are more complex and more diverse in their play than we imagine. One of my classmates, with the username of “Butterfly,” described her memory of play in the constant danger of her grandma’s house in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and her quiet street back home in Lynn, Massachusetts. She recalled the gunshots that interrupted the game she played with her sister, saying, “It was going to be okay, it would just be a little while until we felt safe enough to go back outside. And we would continue with the game.” Butterfly’s depiction of childhood play falls out of line with our typical view of childhood. It is plagued by constant danger, a part of life for many children which is often removed from societal expectations and our own imaginings of child’s play. We assume that children who deal with danger do not play. “Poor black and brown kids aren’t included in [the] simplistic picture of the carefree childhood, and when they are included at all, it’s to stand in contrast to it” (Knefel). Children play regardless of environment and upbringing, and a carefree and privileged life is not a prerequisite for play.

Childhood is also more stressful and complex than we imagine. “In order for childhood to be carefree, it would have to exist in an entirely separate world from the adult one” (Knefel). Children are innocent, but they still live in the same world as adults, and experience the same issues. Butterfly was scared but not surprised when she heard the gunshots, demonstrating her awareness of danger despite her young age. Even when playing in her safe neighborhood, she needed to finish her homework before playing with her neighbor. Although the stress of homework is a far cry from escaping violence, it represents the constant stress on financially secure children to do well in school to secure their future. “View childhood through an autobiographical lens, and suddenly it’s obvious what a little kid has to be depressed about. Fitting in, standing out, dealing with authority, being lonely, never being alone, being different” (Knefel). Childhood pressures complicate our imaginings of child play, as shown when Butterfly was interrupted by gunshots while playing, and when she had to finish homework before playing.

The hardships that children experience are an integral part of their play. Despite dealing with the same issues as adults, they are able to see the hardships from different perspectives, and turn them into play, as a way of overcoming or alleviating their problems. Knefel gives the example of the elementary school play she watched in the Bronx, a “devastating portrayal of the cyclical criminalization of poverty...containing ninjas and witches and ghosts and dragons.” The use of childhood imagination to depict a serious issue, in the form of a play performed for the parents’ entertainment, demonstrates the entanglement of play and hardship. Play becomes an outlet for children to confront and overcome their problems. This is similar to Butterfly’s experience at her grandma’s house, when she says, “Maybe they would forget my left foot was out and I could have a better shot at winning.” Even in the moment of danger, Butterfly incorporates this interruption into her game, using play to deal with the conflict she was facing. Even in Butterfly’s first world hardship of balancing homework with play, her playtime is complicated by her need to do homework and the play becomes a reward for finishing a day’s work rather than existing on its own as part of a carefree life.

Children do not exist in an alternate universe devoid of all “adult” issues. They live and play in the same world, using play to deal with issues in ways that often do not occur to adults. A life full of hardship is not the opposite of a life full of play, as play and hardship often coexist. This expands the image of play beyond the carefree, suburban white children playing in a safe white neighborhood. All children play and their play is complicated and developed by the challenges they face. Or as Butterfly says, “Kids just want to play, and they’ll find a way to do so regardless.”