Diverse Perspectives on Children’s Agency in Migration

Authors: Emily Bruce, Stephanie Olsen, Beatrice Scutaru & Lauren Stokes

In response to the second digital workshop, entitled “Pieces and Bits from the Past: Children’s Agency in Migration”, four historians of childhood offer in this blog their diverse perspectives on children’s agency in migration. Presented at the opening roundtable of the workshop, Emily Bruce (University of Minnesota, USA), Stephanie Olsen (HEX, Tampere University, Finland), Beatrice Scutaru (Maynooth University, Ireland), and Lauren Stokes (Northwestern University, USA) engage with the question of the usefulness and meaning of the notion of ‘agency’ when applied to the history of children in migration. The workshop was the second in a series of events, organized by the global research network “In Search of the Migrant Child: Global Histories of Youth and Migration Between Knowledge, Experience, and Everyday Life”, which took place on December 2-3, 2021.

Dutch Child Refugees-Arrival in Britain at Tilbury, Essex, England, UK, 1945

Emily Bruce (University of Minnesota, USA)

It would be challenging to name a sociological concept more foundational to the historiography of childhood and youth than the one that the workshop organizers have brought us together to discuss. Before our field fully developed, young people were seen primarily as objects of history. Scholars had mistaken children’s agency as simple and unimportant, when numerous studies have now shown us that the ways in which children form opinions, exercise power, and make history are complex and profoundly embedded in social context.1

Yet there are certainly interpretive “traps” in childhood historians’ attention to agency, to borrow Mona Gleason’s term, which she presented in her article “Avoiding the Agency Trap: Caveats for Historians of Children, Youth, and Education.2 Of those raised in recent years, I find myself most concerned with the argument that we sometimes actually miss seeing young people as key actors in history when we solely seek moments of resistance or presume children’s needs to be unchanging.


The study of children’s agency also presents dichotomous temptations. First, there is a desire to celebrate agency in the historical record, especially defiance or direct negotiation of discipline. Second, there is a desire to critique the propagandistic mechanisms of authorities, institutions, and power. Even though these two impulses stem from shared historical and political perspectives, they are often in conflict. That is, either we understand children as agents with the capacity to reinterpret and reject their socialization, or we accept that teachers, parents, and other adults successfully impose a tyrannical upbringing on young people.

My approach does not look for middle ground between these poles, but instead investigates how agency and discipline worked inseparably to shape the experiences of children and, in turn, their imprint on history. Studying education in particular has shown me that it does have emancipatory potential for some individuals but has also – and in the same contexts – served as an instrument of governance and conformity. Children are forces of socialization at the same time and indeed because they are objects of socialization.

So, I still find agency a useful way into understanding the experiences and perspectives of children, and especially important for thinking about the contributions of working class, colonized, and other subaltern youth. Just a couple of quick examples to close: First: my book on middle-class German childhoods during the Age of Revolutions opens with an 1830 diary by a 10-year-old. After repetitive short entries detailing only the weather, an adult scrawled, “This should not be a weather almanac!” Thinking about this young writer’s agency is what prompted me to notice the intriguing contradictions of the adult demanding more independent creativity, and the child dutifully writing every day without responding to that demand.

Second: along with fellow workshop participant Kelly Condit-Shrestha, I have been fortunate to be involved over the past decade or so with the Youth as Subject, Object, Agent research circle, which released a book this year that offers a model for thinking about children in each of those positions. Especially of interest to this group would be a chapter by youth migrant experts Lauren Heidbrink and Michele Statz, for whom the perspectives and agency of young people in navigating mobility is essential.

Stephanie Olsen (HEX, Tampere University, Finland)

In my day job I am a historian of childhood and youth in the British Empire, and a historian of emotions and experience, and more recently a historian of the First World War, but I also have a side project, which is close to my heart. From a very young age, I grew up listening to my mother’s stories of life in and after the Second World War. She was 5 years old when the war ended and her life was changed forever, in a large part through migration. Her experiences were common to many children, but this does not make them less poignant individually, or less worth recounting.

My mother spent her first 5 years in Soldin (now Myśliborz in Poland). Her father was a soldier in the German army and was away most of the time, and my mother lived with her 2 younger siblings, her mother, her father’s mother (who fled Berlin) and a few other young relatives who also fled worse conditions (including one little cousin whose parents lived in Cameroon). They lived there through the period when the Red Army took over the town, finally fleeing by foot to Berlin in the summer of 1945. My mother lost her mother and her grandmother to typhoid at the end of that journey, and the 3 children were split up into different foster homes in Berlin.

She felt enormous responsibility for her family, especially for her mother as her protector, and she seems to have taken on a lot of the emotional labour in the family, in keeping everyone cheerful and hopeful. Of course, this was especially important for her tiny siblings: it was clear to her that they needed an atmosphere of calm and cheerfulness in order to function.

The story I am trying to write is very personal and the details sometimes minute, but is it centrally a story about a 5-year-old migrant girl’s agency? No, but it is a story of childhood resilience (another fraught concept, I know, but it is the way my mother categorizes it herself) in the face of enormous challenge and loss, of childhood intentional (and unintentional) feeling, action, and experience.

I struggle with the premises of the questions of this opening roundtable, because I do not see agency as a meaningful category of historical analysis in general, but especially when it comes to marginalized groups like children. I don’t want to revisit all of the arguments against agency here, as several prominent historians, of children and childhood and of other marginalized groups, have already articulated the issues so clearly. I am also co-writing a couple of articles, which will further push our understanding of the theoretical and methodological issues. But I will not rehash our arguments to problematize or to replace agency here.

Indeed, as scholars of childhood and youth have pointed out, all people enact change on the world, either deliberately or not. Thus, all people possess “agency,” but to attempt to establish the relative degree of it is a fruitless task. All action is situated, mediated, and contextually specific. To me, the question of agency is simply not significant in comparison with the need to understand how experience and action are situated, mediated and contextualized. To repeat Ishita Pande’s provocative question in her response to Sarah Maza’s article “The Kids Aren’t All Right: Historians and the Problem of Childhood” in the American Historical Review: Does the child vanish with the onset of agency? And does everybody acquire agency at a precise, uniformly measurable moment in time? It seems as if our fundamental question as historians of childhood and youth about age as a contingent but meaningful category itself is tied up with the problematic search for agency. It’s time to untie the knot, as many of us are already doing.

In my view “agency” does not simply need to be replaced with another similar concept. Rather, we need to reframe how to approach the history of children’s voices and power, as well as how “the child” is historically invented and shaped.

I would rather seek out approaches that take historians beyond questions of agency, by focusing on new historical and historiographical frameworks, especially the history of the emotions and the new history of experience. My intention is to explore what these new frameworks might mean for the history of childhood and youth and how we might begin to rethink critical analytical categories within the field. What are the implications of concepts such as experience and emotions, especially their bearing on agency? How might they push us to reconsider questions of power, structures of authority and social categorization such as gender, class, age, race? And how might they explain childhood action, and inaction?

Agency does not really get at the core of the most important questions about the history of children/childhood or effectively encapsulate the stories we want to tell from our archives. How can we understand the thoughts, feelings, motivations and experiences of young people in the past? In what ways were/are they historically, contextually significant? (This is to riff on Mona Gleason’s keynote question at the HEX conference).

Of course, these questions are not only relevant to historians of childhood. No human of any age is fully agentic or independent, or static at some point in their lives. The new history of experience tries to get at this changeability and interdependence of individual and collective selves in history. Rob Boddice and Mark Smith recently wrote: “we are after how it felt, or how it was, to the historical actor” and “the ways in which living was real” depending on context, changing notions of the self and the collective, at a given historical moment.3 So the call is for a meticulous understanding of our particular contexts, actors, and archives in order to provide us with a more complete picture of collective and individual experience, always keeping in mind dynamics of power, authority and prescription. Changing the questions we ask might give us more complete and satisfying stories to tell.

Beatrice Scutaru (Maynooth University, Ireland)

I am particularly interested in transnational child migration since the end of the Second World War, with a special focus on East Central Europe. At the moment, I am working on two projects, one looking at Greek, Korean and Chilean refugee children in communist Romania and the other at Romanian children having emigrated since 1945, with or without their parents. My research method and reflections on this topic are influenced by my initial training as a historian of international relations. This means that understanding the relationship between structure and children’s experiences is essential.

On the one hand, I aim to grasp the context, structure, and dynamics of power in which children lived. To do this, I look at the institutions (e.g., care institutions, schools, hospitals) and actors (e.g., experts, family, decision-makers, international and non-governmental organisations) which have collaborated and competed to take care of children, guiding their lives and upbringings. As shown by the excellent contributions and the conclusion to the volume I co-edited, on Child Migration and Biopolitics. Old and New Experiences in Europe, while actors claim to act in the children’s best interest, those with the power to decide have often made decisions influenced by a variety of factors such as personal convictions, morals, gender, class, race, politics, economy, ideology… Despite their best intentions, these decisions often go against the best interests and sometimes wishes of the children. This approach enables me to identify children’s margins for manoeuvre (to borrow a concept from a recent publication in Cold War history, Margins for Manoeuvre in Cold War Europe. The Influence of Smaller Powers) in relation to these power dynamics. What are the limits which frame children’s existences and how can they navigate them?

On the other hand, I put great effort in understanding how children lived, what were their experiences, with a focus on their emotions, everyday lives (e.g., with whom they spent time, what they were interested in), the choices they made and what these experiences meant. Finding children’s voices from the past is, however, difficult, especially with groups of children who do not have the power and/or time, possibility to create and preserve sources. Despite these difficulties, the focus on children’s voices, experiences, emotions is fundamental. As demonstrated by numerous researchers, children experience situations different than adults, they are interested in and focus on different aspects than adults. For example, my research on Cold War childhoods has demonstrated that children’s experiences and memories of their childhood are not necessarily connected to ideology. They focus, instead, on ideas of a happy childhood, of an ordinary life where they played, went to school, spent time with family and friends. This helps us acquire a better understanding of the past but also question and redefine existing notions of the ordinary, of what an ordinary, happy childhood could be, depending on a specific context.

More recently, I have started to focus on children’s life course. This approach explores the articulation between individual experiences (how and with whom they spend time, what they do), family histories and dynamics (socio-economic characteristics, level of education), as well as the historical and socioeconomic context (institutional, (trans)national). It enables an understanding of life as a continuous process, in which change is a constant. The life course approach also allows for an exploration of the process of individual or collective identity building and the factors which have an impact in the path one takes.

Lauren Stokes (Northwestern University, USA)

My current project seeks to understand the course of migration restriction in the Federal Republic of Germany since the 1960s, and my first reflection for this roundtable is driven by that temporal context: in a time and place where migration becomes criminalized, agency can be a very dangerous thing.

For most of my period the German state did not require visas or residence permits for children under the age of sixteen, which meant that this temporal marker – the moment at which the child vanished, to be replaced by an adult – became incredibly important. One of the ways that racism worked in the migration bureaucracy was to deny children the status of children. Many of my bureaucrats were convinced that Turkish and other foreign teenagers were “suspiciously young”, that in fact they were adults pretending to be children. The methods of forensic age verification were introduced to make fewer foreigners children, and thus to make fewer foreigners able to migrate. I want to critique the way in which racism denied some children a childhood, and so I’ve found myself holding the “child” fairly static as a category.

The children who get what they want in my study – if I define that as an ability to choose where they live – are precisely those who can disavow that they have agency. For example, children who had left Germany with their parents while still minors and subsequently sought to return would force a “right to return” to be written into German law in the 1980s, but they did so through performing their status as non-agentic children rather than as autonomous agents. In one heart-breaking story, a young woman who had lived in Germany from her birth to the age of thirteen moved to Turkey with her parents at the age of thirteen. Three years later she decided that she wanted to return to Germany, and she went there on her own and went to the immigration office to plead for an independent residence permit. We could read this as a clear example of child agency, but the person she talks to advises her to change her story to make that agency illegible: “Do not say you are choosing to live in Germany. Say you will kill yourself if you return to Turkey.” To achieve agency, she can’t present herself as a rational actor but must perform as a victimized child, one who is forced to move rather than choosing to do so.

As we craft historical arguments, we tend to hold some categories as static to show that others are constructed – in my book, I now realize, I tended to hold the category of “the child” as static to make a different set of arguments about the way that racial and gender hierarchies structured the migration bureaucracy. What happens if, having now established that background, I instead float the category of “children”? Where would I find the agency of children, and what would that agency do for my historical understanding?

One text immediately came to mind. Anneliese Ude-Pestel was a West German play therapist best known for her book Betty: History and Art of a Child in Therapy, which was translated into several languages for its depiction of play therapy with a six-year-old girl.4 She later wrote a book about her therapy with a young guest worker child, dubbed “Ahmet,” who had begun wetting the bed.5 Although Ude-Pestel usually saw both parents and children as clients, in Ahmet’s case, he was the only member of his family who spoke German well enough for therapy, and thus the therapist’s only way to access the family dynamic. The published book tells a story of success – it is a book about the fact that she is a good therapist. But even with that rhetorical purpose in mind, the book is also a text about a child who is the primary actor in creating change in the life of his adults. Ahmet is a child, but he is a child constantly helping his own mother and father, translating their statements for his teachers, for the police, and now for his therapist. As he does the work of therapy and becomes more able to articulate his own feelings about this situation, we are told that his family also improves – the mother begins to clean the home more, the father becomes more confident, even the older siblings seem to improve their lot in life.

Reflecting on the categories of this workshop, how should I read this story? Is it a story of child agency, uncovered, or simply a story of the things that children make adults do? It is both, and it is also a useful reminder that in many migratory contexts, children may have more agency than the adults in their lives in important ways. They may serve as the translators and the interpreters for their guardians, their primary interface with the new society. This is one way in which the specificity of childhood and children’s experiences within the family may tell us something about migration that we cannot capture from adult experiences alone.

Further reading:

Rob Boddice/Mark Smith, Emotion, Sense, Experience. Cambridge 2020.

Mona Gleason, Avoiding the Agency Trap: Caveats for Historians of Children, Youth, and Education. In: History of Education 45 (2016) 4, p. 446–459.

Mary Jo Maynes, Age as a Category of Historical Analysis: History, Agency, and Narratives of Childhood. In: Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 1 (2008) 1, p. 114–124.

Sarah Maza, The Kids Aren’t All Right: Historians and the Problem of Childhood”. In: The American Historical Review, 125 (2020) 4, p. 1261–1285.

Steven Mintz, Reflections on Age as a Category of Historical Analysis. In: Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 1 (2008) 1, p. 91–94.

Ishita Pande, Is the History of Childhood Ready for the World? A Response to ‘The Kids Aren’t All Right’. In: The American Historical Review, 125 (2020) 4, p. 1300–1305.

Zitiervorschlag: Emily Bruce/Stephanie Olsen/Beatrice Scutaru/Lauren Stokes, Diverse Perspectives on Children’s Agency in Migration. In: Denken ohne Geländer. Der Blog des Hannah-Arendt-Institut für Totalitarismusforschung e.V. vom 05.01.2022: https://haitblog.hypotheses.org/2267

Beitragsbild:
© Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
haitblog (2022, 5. Januar). Diverse Perspectives on Children’s Agency in Migration. Denken ohne Geländer. Abgerufen am 24. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/pf15

  1. Among many others, see Mary Jo Maynes, Age as a Category of Historical Analysis: History, Agency, and Narratives of Childhood. In: Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1 (2008) 1, p.114–124; Steven Mintz, “Reflections on Age as a Category of Historical Analysis. In: Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 1 (2008) 1, p. 91–94. In his foundational work, Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1770-present, John Gillis addressed the question of young people’s agency as “the proposition that youth makes its own history, a history linked with and yet analytically separable from that of the family, the school, and other adult institutions.” John Gillis, Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1770-present, New York 1974, p. ix. []
  2. Also addressed at the roundtable and the resulting commentaries by Karen Vallgårda, Kristine Alexander, and Stephanie Olsen, “Against Agency,” Society for the History of Childhood and Youth, Camden, NJ, June 22, 2017). []
  3. Rob Boddice/Mark Smith, Emotion, Sense, Experience. Cambridge 2020, p. 22 f. []
  4. German original: Anneliese Ude-Pestel, Betty: Protokoll einer Kinderpsychotherapie, Stuttgart 1975. []
  5. Anneliese Ude-Pestel, Ahmet: Geschichte einer Kindertherapie, München 1981. []

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