Anthony Synnott Ph.D.

Rethinking Men

On Children...

Little angels, little devils...

Posted Aug 22, 2017

Children today are not what they used to be, even 50 years ago — because times and societies have changed, but then it was never very clear what they (or other humans, come to that) were anyway. The social constructions of children and childhood have been so many, so various and so contradictory as to be totally baffling.

They have been defined as little angels (the Romantics): “…trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home: / Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” (Wordsworth.) Perhaps a reiteration of Christianity: “Suffer little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven”  (So it will be noisy.) But also as little devils, from Augustine with the doctrine of original sin to the Puritans to my old catechism which taught that we are “prone to evil from our very childhood.” Hence Bishop Butler’s adage: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” For Locke, reflecting Aristotle, children are blank slates upon which one could write what one willed (In this view, it’s all nurture). For farmers and capitalists children were little workers, at least for the latter until the Reform Acts. As one American lawyer argued in 1924: “The Savior has said, 'My father worketh hitherto, and I work'…May not the child follow the footsteps of the Savior in this?” (Of course, the Savor was an adult at the time, but lawyers…). Freud described children as little ids; and the id is: “It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality… a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations… [It] knows no judgement of value: no good and evil, no morality… [and is] intimately linked to the pleasure principle.”(1932; 1973: 105-7). Which infantile personality passes through successive phases of oral, anal and phallic development, in a word, sexual: (not my little angel, please!) The Behaviorists saw them as little animals, not so much reflecting Darwin, as their trainability, like Pavlov’s dogs: conditioned reflexes by stimulus/response. Watson promised that he could train anyone to be anything, regardless of innate traits. (More nurture theory). Parents might call them little monkeys, from their antics. Today we might think of children as unique in their individual potentials, traits and powers — though a counter-trend has emerged emphasizing that “You are NOT unique! You are much the same as all the other 7.4 billion people on the planet!”

And apart from the arguments about what children (and humans generally) are, there are the controversies. Are they more influenced by genetics (the bad seed theory) or by the environment (“West Side Story”)? Probably both, but mostly by their own choices, as the Bolger brothers indicate. Are they all the same ("Kids!”) or all different? Are they influenced more by rewards or punishment, carrots or sticks? Montaigne and Rousseau favored the former, Butler (and my Jesuit teachers) the latter. Now there seem to be few rewards in the school system, and corporal punishment is illegal, so in the U.S. there may be metal detectors on entry, armed security guards and CCTV; unheard of and unnecessary in my youth.

As the constructions of children and the theories have varied and changed, so have the practices and theories of parenting: laissez-faire, tiger moms, helicopter parenting, soccer mums and dads, skill-learning (tennis, piano, soccer and swimming) versus character development (play, socializing, adventure and camp, fun). The internet has dozens of sites on parenting styles, and their costs and benefits: it’s all quite confusing. There are still more controversies about hands on, hands off, and “good enough” parenting, single parenting, gay parenting and adoptions, foster care (Economist 24 June: 25-6), father or mother absence, the effects of divorce (“Should we stay together for the sake of the kids?” Probably that all depends), the effects of physical or sexual abuse, problem kids reflecting problem parents or parents with problems, internet porn, premature sexualization…

I wrote a paper on some of these concerns — OMG — 34 years ago; but a surge of reports about children recently caught my eye and indicated how much has changed on numerous new, and old, issues: war, education, marriage

WAR:  The Manchester bombing targeted girls and young women at the Ariana Grande concert on May 22. Of the 22 killed, the youngest was eight.  This was described by Alter (2017) as “An Attack on Girlhood.” Other attacks on children include the Dunblane massacre in Scotland in 1996, with 16 children and one adult killed before the murderer killed himself. Columbine followed in 1999. Then Beslan with 385 dead, including the Chechnyan terrorists and 186 children in 2004. And Sandy Hook (2012). And Peshawar (2014) by the Taliban killing 141, including 132 children.  Children as deliberately targeted victims.

The second horrific example of changing values is the kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the use of girls as suicide bombers. (Baker, 2017). This kidnapping and militarization of girls is new.

A third is the recent bombing of a kindergarten in China, killing eight people including the bomber. A message written nearby said: “Giving birth is a crime.”  (Montreal Gazette 17 July). Apparently such attacks have happened before.

Child soldiers have been used by warlords in many parts of the world recently, which generated the U.N. Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (OP CRC) in 2002. Again, a new situation, but children have been fighters with AK-47s in many theatres: Mali, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Somalia and elsewhere. The Canadian military has developed new directives to respond to these new developments, and to any reluctance to shoot young enemies, effectively switching constructions of children from child soldiers to soldiers, to minimize delays in responses and the occurrence of PTSD (Economist 1 April: 28,30). The idea of children as fighters and as enemies and killable (not as little angels) is new.

The case of Canadian Omar Khadr is instructive. He was 15 when he killed an American soldier in Afghanistan and wounded another. Defined as a child soldier Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to him and awarded him $10.5 million dollars for the failure of the government to protect his rights. 71 percent of Canadians opposed this award. Former general Romeo Dallaire declared that: “A child is a child is a child.” Well, a 3-year old is a child. A 6-year old is a child. But a 15-year old is an adolescent and, armed with a grenade, is not so much a child as a soldier, an enemy combatant. When is a child not a child? Easy riddle.

Pedophilia is being recognized as a huge problem. It was recently disclosed that at least 547 members of a boys’ choir in Regensburg, Germany, were physically or sexually assaulted by Catholic Church members over 70 years (Time 31 July:16). And in Canada the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) launched in 2007 to investigate and offer compensation for the physical and sexual abuse of First Nations children in the residential school system still continues, with 38,000 applications and $3.1 million paid out (Forrest, 2017). Ireland, the U.K., the U.S. and Australia have had their own crises of child abuse. The most vulnerable are the most abused.

An Arizona woman, Ashley Attson, 23, put her 17-month daughter in her stroller, pushed her into the desert and left her to die. She came back later and buried her. She was just sentenced to 20 years for the “intentional, cold-hearted, horrendous killing of an innocent child” (Montreal Gazette 2 August). The latest data I can find on children as victims of homicide is from 2008 when 1,494 children were murdered in the US. 1,035 were males. No data on who killed them. The most infamous case was perhaps poor James Bulger, aged 2, brutally murdered in the U.K. by two 10-year old boys. The UNICEF Report Hidden in Plain Sight asserts that 95,000 children and adolescents aged 0-19 were murdered (about one in five of the total) but the U.S. had the highest rate of 34 western democracies. In several South American countries, homicide is the leading cause of death among young males.

Perhaps there is a war on children, but also, especially in the gang wars in the Americas (including MS-13 Economist 5 August: 23), a war between children.  This would join the books on the wars on women, men and boys.

EDUCATION:   Children in North America are not doing as well as they should. They are somewhat neglected, educationally. The latest data on global educational achievements indicate an alarming disjunction between national wealth and educational achievement: a sort of carelessness about spending energy and money on children’s education when it could go to so much worthier causes as congressional expenses and corporate salaries.

American universities take 5 of the top 10 places, according to the Q3 global ranking of universities, including first place to MIT. Four of the others go to the UK and one to Switzerland. This is impressive.  BUT according to the OECD, Singapore is top in all three ranked areas in schools: Reading, Mathematics and Science. In Maths, the US is 40, the UK 27 and Canada 10. In Reading the U.S. is 24, the UK 22 and Canada 3. In Science the US is 25, the UK 15 and Canada 7. Overall, of the 76 countries surveyed, the top five are all Asian, Canada is 10, the UK is 20 and the U.S is 25, joint with Italy. Clearly none of these wealthy countries are devoting the amount of time, attention, energy, prestige to our children’s development and to teachers and schools that is necessary. Sure, childhood is not just about education, but clearly the US education system in particular is failing children, especially boys.

In a fascinating critique of the Education system in the U.S., Michael Moore in the oddly titled Stupid White Men — OK not so odd when you read the book — is furious at the failures of the system in so many ways: not the teachers or the unions but the politicians. A must read — and not just for that.

MARRIAGE:  Time Magazine recently devoted an article to child marriage, specifically the marriage of underage girls. The age of legal marriage in New Hampshire is 13! Before finishing high school? Before the right to vote? Apparently “nearly every state allows some people under age 18 to marry.” Eighteen is not 13! And 27 states set no limits and nine states set limits below 16. Sixteen is the age below which sexual relations become statutory rape. (Alter, 2017). But we are not in the 19th century. This seems to me, and presumably to the editors of Time, to indicate a certain carelessness about the rights of children, and therefore about children.

Meanwhile a 17-year old Muslim schoolgirl from Sri Lanka tried to commit suicide to avoid marrying a stranger, one whom her parents had chosen for her. As she recovered in hospital, her parents registered the marriage. Consent is not required under their Islamic law. The Economist reported this under the headline “Doom and Groom. Waking up married, whether you like it or not.” (17 June).

AGE:  The low fertility rate or the lack of children to replace the aging and aged labour force is forcing the President of Taiwan to reduce pensions to prevent bankruptcy.  In 1996, nine workers supported one pensioner; this fell to six to one in 2015 and is expected to fall to three to one by 2031. In 2015 Taiwanese women were expected to have only 1.2 children on average over the course of their lives, (far below the replacement rate of 2.2) and life expectancy passed 80 for the first time. (Economist 20 May: 34). It is rough to expect people to have as many children as the state needs, but it is also rough to cut pensions. It is new that children now affect state policies so drastically. Children, whether in Taiwan, S. Korea, Japan, Spain, Italy or the UK, are widely seen as unnecessary, expensive, unwanted, luxury items. The fertility rate is down in most of the rich countries, except for immigrants. This represents a huge shift in attitudes towards children, not that new, but spreading.

HEALTH:  The U.S. has the highest rate of obese children in the world: 12.7 percent (Time 26 June: 8).

PARENTING:  Parenting is not what it was either. Once mothers stayed home, if possible. Marx noted the prevalence of women in the labor force in Capital. Now, with both parents working, they may outsource their duties. Outsourcing involves more than nannies, but now includes such activities as bike-riding lessons, delousing, and teaching them to sleep, all for a price (McGinn, 2017).

Another changed dimension of parenting: a time limit. A recent poll in Canada found that 76 percent of parents with a child of 18 or older want them OUT! And almost half were willing to pay on average $24,000 to achieve this goal. The snag (and the rationale, no doubt) is that 42 percent of adults aged 20-29 were still living with their parents, up from 32 percent in 1991 and 27 percent in 1981. (Hasselback, 2017). And, for those statistically interested, 35 percent of those aged 20-34 in 2016, up from 31 percent in 2001 (National Post 3 Aug).The only consolation here is that this demographic probably does not read newspapers, and so is probably unaware of the wishes of their not totally doting parents.

CHILDHOOD: itself has changed. Two examples. A recent study of 32 children’s hospitals across the States indicates that admissions for self-harm and suicidal behavior among 5- to 17-year olds has more than doubled from 2008 to 2015; and about 18 percent of teenagers reported having seriously considered suicide in 2015 (Schrobsdorff, 2017). This is children as seriously troubled.

Homicide is one adversity. Suicide is another. The National Center for Health Statistics reported 42,773 suicides in the U.S. in 2014, up from 29,199 in 1999. Experts wondered about this 46 percent increase in 15 years. One increase was among girls aged 10-14: the rate tripled from 50 to 150, more than any other demographic mentioned. The suicide rate of boys was not mentioned. Odd? Or typical? Given that males have a 3.6 higher rate than females, which was only mentioned in the last paragraph. (Tavernise, 2016). Take a wild guess.

Again, one in nine black children has an incarcerated parent, often because although accused they have not been convicted of any crime but poverty; their families cannot raise the bail money, so they go to prison. Kalief Browder, aged 16, was accused (but not convicted) of stealing a backpack, for which he spent three years on Rikers Island, two of them in solitary. (Carter, 2017). Can you imagine? Enough to drive anyone mad. Which, of course, it did.

CULTURE:  Cultures have different values, and evaluate children and childhood differently. Margaret Mead clarified this in the South Seas and Ruth Benedict in the U.S. and many on the kibbutz in Israel. A recent report in the Washington Post describes the abduction of between 20,000 and 200,000 children every year for sale. A young boy may be sold in wealthier provinces for 120,000 yuan ($18,000) (Denyer and Zhang, 2017).

NATURE:  In her delightful meditative book, Birds Art Life, Kyo Maclear discusses the divorce of children today from nature and from the real world upon which we rely and depend, forgetfully. She notes that Oxford University Press deleted several nature-related words from its Junior Dictionary, including "acorn," "blackberry" and "minnow," and replaced them with words like "analogue," "broadband" and "cut-and-paste." Some years later a group of authors objected to the OUP decision for two reasons: "Firstly, the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history. For the first time ever, that link is in danger of becoming unravelled…Secondly, childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem.” They lament “the interior, solitary childhoods of today.”  Children are now totally connected and totally disconnected. It’s not just that children are less connected to nature, of course; it is also that nature itself is being extinguished.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child was passed by the League of Nations in 1924. It returned as the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959. And was adopted by the U.N. as the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989, effective in 1990. Some people think that childhood today is more difficult than it was in the 1950s or 1970s or whenever their childhood was. I don’t know. Different certainly. In some ways perhaps more difficult.  Since the U.N. Declaration in 1959 the realm of children has changed, at least in the West: there was little talk about latch key kids, throw-away kids, runaway kids, insurance kids, culture wars, deadbeat dads, monstrous moms, domestic violence and divorce, gangs and drug wars. There were no books like Fatherless America (Blankenhorn, 1996), The S.C.U.M. Manifesto (Solanas, 1971) and The War Against Boys (Sommers 2000). Meanwhile the Civil Rights Movement generated the Women’s Movement and successively the Gay Rights movement, the Men’s Rights movements, the LGBT and then the Trans Rights movements. Children are involved everywhere in so many ways.

PLUS: On the plus side, we might recognize the amazing achievements of Gavin Grimm, Simone Biles and Malala Yousafsavi, while still children — now household names — and so many other children whom we know and love

In sum, while childhoods are often better in many ways, not all the children are fine (homicide, suicide, health, parenting, targeting, prison, marriage, education, porn…). They being our future, we should be concerned.


Alter, Charlotte, 2017. “An Attack on Girlhood.” Time 5 June: 37.

Alter, Charlotte, 2017. “Why it’s still legal for underage girls to marry in the U.S.” Time 12 June: 15-6.

Baker, Aryn 2017. “Boko Haram’s Other Victims” 10 July: 40-51.

Carter, Shawn. 2017. “Our bail bond system is predatory and destroys families.” Time 10 July: 28.

Denyer, Simon and Congcong Zhanh, 2017 “The Painful search for China’s missing Children…” Washington Post 17 August.

Forrest, Maura 2017. “Residential School cases could take years to complete.” Montreal Gazette 2 August.

Freud, Sigmund 1932/ 1973. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Pelican Freud library. Vol 2.

Hasselback, Drew, 2017. Montreal Gazette 27 July.

McGinn, Dave 2017. “Outsourcing Parental Duties.” Globe and Mail 21 July.

Schrobsdorff, Susanna. 2017. “What it feels like….” Time 22 May: 56.

Synnott, Anthony 1983. “Little Angels, Little Devils: A Sociology of Children” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology. Vol. 20, No. 1 pp79-85. Feb. Reprinted in Gerald Handel (ed) Childhood Socialization. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1988: 25-43.

Tavernise, Sabrina 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30 Year High.” New York Times 22. May.

About the Author

Anthony Synnott, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Concordia University in Montreal.

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