Children are the present: why the time to listen is now

Most will agree with the claim that children are our future and worthy of protection and investment. They will be grateful for specialists, support educators and even fight for a cleaner and safer world for the next generation. The reality, however, is that children are more than future adults/voters/tax-payers. They are the present.

Children are the eyes and ears making sense of a changing world. They are the hands, feet and mouths navigating environments, social structures, family expectations and societal realities – continuously connecting people and negotiating their own experience in this world. And just as the marginalised voices of women, minorities, workers, the disabled and disenfranchised are reshaping our understanding of history and the present, so too children’s voices must be brought into the chorus.

My own research explores the lives of children of British Protestant missionaries in Africa throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Tracing the lived experience and personal agency (actions, ideas, influence) of these children offers two distinct benefits. First, it brings the stories of children out of the shadows, thereby challenging our assumptions about childhood in diverse contexts. Second, it offers insight into underlying concerns that shaped decisions and policies of families and institutions, thereby illuminating children’s influence beyond childcare and education contexts.

The first stage of my research draws from personal papers and official records in the missionary archives. In the second stage, I will conduct interviews with adults who grew up as missionary children and, possibly, children of missionaries today. This will allow for a comparison across the historical transitions from Victorian to modern and contemporary mission. Its focus on children’s agency in transnational migration speaks to a growing movement of peoples today.

This summer I have begun looking at the correspondence between missionary parents and their children back in Britain. These letters reveal an incredible variety of insights that would not be found in the same way in the official record. Peppered in among discussions about school assignments, illness, Christmas gifts and sporting achievements are detailed descriptions of peoples, customs and rituals; promises of affection and signs of remembrance going both ways; and evidence of the hopes and fears, desires and doubts of generations and cultures in transition. Just as parents acted with their children’s personal and physical formation in mind, so children tailored their actions and words to desired ends – to comfort and cheer, to impress or defy, to mollify or influence their parents, siblings, and other children and adults.

It is a privilege to encounter their stories. Uncovering children’s voices in the archive is a treasure hunt. It takes patient investigation, inside tips and sometimes a bit of luck – but when you strike gold it is all worth it. Children’s voices today need not be unearthed in the same way. They are all around us. It is our responsibility to listen – and do more than listen.

At the Children’s History Society’s ‘Children and Youth on the Move’ conference in June, students from two London schools (@PimlicoAcademy and @FHSRegentsPark) were the surprise guest speakers. They presented on their history projects and fielded questions confidently and eloquently. One student called for governments and policymakers to listen to the feedback and discussions of youth – and not just to listen, ‘but actually consider’ what they have to say.

If respecting children as meaningful research subjects will enrich our historical knowledge, then surely children today can contribute valuable insight to current issues and debates. Children are keen observers whose understanding is often overlooked or dismissed. There are many experts and practitioners who can help shape and conduct studies to include children’s voices; but the effort must be more than a token gesture aimed at good publicity. There must be an underlying commitment to take the insights into serious consideration and allow them to influence decisions in a meaningful way.

The more that children are understood as intrinsic members of society, the more their experiences and perspectives can speak to broader history, wider concerns and contemporary policy and practices. If policymakers endeavour to include the experiences and perspectives of children, the resulting conclusions will be richer, more complex, transformative and effective. If you haven’t thought of children as relevant to your work, perhaps consider if they could be – and if they could be, then perhaps they should be?

Hannah Briscoe, PhD Candidate in History