The culture wars are fought over children, but what does childhood mean? : It's Been a Minute There's been a common theme swirling throughout the culture wars: from gun policy, to drag bans, to talking about race - the innocence of children is always at the center of discussion.

This week, we're exploring the ideas and systems around childhood. We learn why we first drew the line between child and adult, why the line is so jagged and what implications this has on our lives today. We hear from a few kids themselves, then host Brittany Luse is joined by historian Jules Gill-Peterson and author Sophie Lewis. Last, Brittany chats with children's therapist Gerri Cadet Mareus about cultivating kids' autonomy by turning conflicts at home into opportunities to work together.

Are children a marginalized group?

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Hey, y'all. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. And a warning to listeners - this episode contains brief mentions of child abuse and childhood trauma.

I am getting to a point in my life where I'm starting to consider becoming a parent, but lately it seems like the lives of children and how we raise them have become increasingly fraught. Every culture war being fought in the U.S. - gun control, how we talk about racism, the rights of LGBTQ people - is often framed as a power struggle over children.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Due to liberals pushing their woke agenda on our kids, school boards have become ground zero for some of America's most contested issues - mask mandates, critical race theory, pronoun insanity, and...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Extremists are imposing their beliefs on all students and parents through library book bans, bans on certain subjects in the public school curricula and censorship of educators, all to the...

LUSE: And a few kids we talked to have thoughts about this.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: That makes me mad. It makes me really mad. I think it's ridiculous. I think it's not fair that, you know, the generation that's yet to come - you're taking away parts of history or you're censoring things just because you don't agree with them, like LGBTQ things or a lot of Black authors' books.

LUSE: And kids' frustration doesn't stop with school. It extends to their everyday lives and their collective future.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: But the decisions they're making aren't going to affect them. It's going to affect us. And so the idea that we have no say in it, but we're going to have to just live with it is awful.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Yeah, sometimes I feel like some adults will talk to me like they're being nice enough to ask my opinion, but in the end, they're not really going to think about what I'm saying just because I'm, like, a kid.

LUSE: It's hard being a kid these days. And as someone who wants to one day have a kid, I struggle with what parenthood would mean when I see just how many laws are passed to control what children can read, what they can see, and who they can be without any input from children. So I understand their frustration. I wouldn't want to be in that position as an adult. I'm understanding more and more that by a lot of measures, children really are a marginalized group.

For some, thinking about kids in this way may feel strange. And yet many kids experience structural and personal harm without any power to change it. Children make up almost a third of all people in the U.S. living in poverty. One in 8 children in the U.S. struggles with hunger, and 1 in 4 experiences child abuse or neglect. Even children from more well-resourced families can still experience harm from parents, caregivers, teachers or coaches who are put in charge of their care.

So in thinking about my own future kid, I wanted to understand the systems that take away children's voices and figure out what it would look like for me to protect my kid while still championing their autonomy. Coming up, we hear more from kids. And later, an historian and an author break down some surprising history behind how we draw the line between child and adult.

So, listen, I know that a lot of adult activities and responsibilities are not age appropriate for many children. And based on the conversations we had with kids, they get that, too.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: The responsibilities of an adult is pretty big - paying rent, having to cook for yourself and everything, keeping a job steady. Those seem very hard.

LUSE: And yet there are still a lot of children who are treated like adults in different ways - put in jails or detention centers, working illegally in dangerous jobs, tasked with caretaking responsibilities at home. No matter how they're treated, children have next to no political power to change their circumstances.

ZACH: When I can't do something, I know there's always a reason, like, deep down, but sometimes it feels kind of unfair because, like, the adults in your life get to do what they want, like, pretty much all the time. But I know that's not true.

LUSE: This is Zach, age 10, who spoke to my producer.

LIAM MCBAIN, BYLINE: Well, mean, you know, it depends. I feel like...

ZACH: Oh, yeah. A hundred percent.

MCBAIN: ...There are also a lot of rules for adults, I mean...

ZACH: (Laughter) Yes.

MCBAIN: Yes. Laws.

ZACH: Those apply to kids, too.


XANDER: I'm trying to get my whole face on the camera, which means I'm taller. So I'm going to need another book. Yeah, that's good.

LUSE: That's 8-year-old Xander (ph). Through talking to them, I realized that even younger kids see how their own wants and needs can be overwhelmed by adults biases. I asked Xander what they wished adults understood.

XANDER: I would want them to understand that it's not a binary choice for gender. Lots of grown-ups, when they were growing up, it was kind of like girls have to have long hair. Boys have to have short hair. And I think that's just not true.

LUSE: And for 16-year-old Nazrat (ph), she's disillusioned by witnessing the world she's about to come into as a new adult and not being able to do much to make it different.

NAZRAT: I do want to have some input in what's going to happen in the future or, like, about my life 'cause I'm the one that's going to be living it. And there isn't any, like, 16-year-old or a representative of our generation in power. And so I think with all that, it's kind of depressing.

LUSE: And Nazrat has an anxiety about what the future might look like, but still feels like she deserves a say in the world she's already a part of.

JULES GILL-PETERSON: Part of what it means to become the age of majority is simply to arrive at a threshold where you're given a kind of legal ability to exercise personhood.

LUSE: That's historian and author Jules Gill-Peterson. I sat down with her and Sophie Lewis, author of the book "Abolish The Family." And if that sounds like a radical concept, it's because it is.

SOPHIE LEWIS: I mean, I'm not denouncing, you know, all family relationships as somehow broken or wrong, but I do think the family is actually a pretty unsafe place.

LUSE: In her book, she points out that most child abuse happens within families, but the family is also the only place many kids can receive emotional or financial support. And a healthy family is not even guaranteed for everyone. According to Sophie, our system of relying on the family to provide safety is unstable, unfair, and needs an overhaul. I sat down with Jules and Sophie to talk about how we got here and why both kids and parents are set up to fail in our family systems. Sophie, Jules, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.

LEWIS: Thank you. It's great to be here.

GILL-PETERSON: Thanks so much for having us.

LUSE: To start, Jules, how would you describe the state of childhood in 2023, legally and culturally?

GILL-PETERSON: Oh, it's pretty rough out there. I mean, I don't know if anyone's having an amazing 2023, but, you know, young people face being sort of saddled with debt from a young age, living under constant threat of violence and the sort of normalization of school shootings. I want to sort of say as a historian to that is, like, this is sort of the structural problem children have faced since they were kind of categorized as innocent, vulnerable and incapable of action or incapable of politics or incapable of free speech or all sorts of other exercises of freedom, is that we sort of say, you have to survive the first 18 to 21 years of your life before we'll take you seriously, before you get to participate in crafting the world that you've been flung into. And then I feel like we're always sort of shocked to find out that, one, like, a lot of young people don't like being treated that way, right?

But at root - right? - the root structure here is a little bit about the division of the world into children and adults in the first place. And this intentionally unequal system where children have less human rights, less civil rights than adults do, literally cannot accumulate the kind of autonomy that American society promises - like, you know, basically, money or property - in order to pursue your own interests. And then we get really angry, you know, when kids figure out ingenious ways to band together and do things otherwise, right? For example, when young people join Black Lives Matter and are really involved in that movement, or young people organize for, you know, passing gun reform legislation or when young people make decisions to exercise bodily autonomy, you know, by getting an abortion or transitioning, right?

LUSE: You know, the treatment that you're speaking of sounds a lot like how I remember feeling when I was a kid...


LUSE: ...And maybe even, like, how intensely I felt or understood that. Even just, like, the idea of being 18 years old as, like, this arbitrary age - I see you nodding, Jules.


LUSE: Emphatically.

GILL-PETERSON: Well, it's so helpful to slow down and think about these things because the arbitrary lines we draw are arbitrary. I was just looking into this because there's been a lot of headlines this year so far about various types of amendments to age-based laws or age thresholds in state legislatures around the country. And so if we were just to take at face value existing laws and proposed laws - right? - we would say that, well, in one state you can't consent to take gender-affirming hormones until you're 25, 26. But...

LUSE: Twenty-five?

GILL-PETERSON: Well, that's the language in proposed legislation. It has yet to sort of successfully pass, right?

LUSE: Right.

GILL-PETERSON: But some of those same states are lowering the age that you can work in certain dangerous industries because there's a labor shortage and we want kids to work there, often for lower wages. But then on the flip side - right? - you have states that will say, you know, teenagers can't consent to learning about the fact that gay people exist in a high school social studies curriculum. But on the other hand, they might be able to legally marry an adult, which means that that adult can then have sex with them without it being statutory rape. Now, the point to me in enumerating those is actually not to say, look at this hypocrisy, because I think if we were to see that as hypocritical, it would be because we would think there really is some genuine, 100% workable universal precept where we know when you cross the line from child to adult. But the point is, there isn't. And so we have this really contradictory patchwork system that has been created over time, is constantly being changed and facilitates certain kinds of power relationships.

LUSE: I'd like to stop us here for a second to remind you that Jules is an historian, and she's looked into the origins of childhood - where our modern understanding of it came from. And the answer just might blow your mind a little.

GILL-PETERSON: The root of the sort of legal concept of personhood in the United States actually comes out of the 18th century. It comes out of an era when there was legal slavery. And part of one of the really interesting stories that historians of childhood have helped us to understand is that after the Civil War, in the wake of the formal abolition of slavery, a lot of that cultural anxiety over what made the difference between a person and a thing or a person and a piece of property was transferred and remade through children. Because children emerge as a distinct category under the law.

And part of what happens is we create this legal category of children where they're quasi-property. They're not actually pieces of property. It is not equivalent to being enslaved in any which way, right? But children are quasi-property. That is to say, they somewhat belong to their parents who are going to be in charge of them, in charge of shaping and molding and frankly, having a pretty substantial kind of power of domination over them, which they might use to love and support and care for those kids, but they might use to harm them. And the state can intervene and take them and possess them under certain circumstances.

But I actually think it's this root problem is that childhood has been a way to maintain private property, and that has really profound cultural resonance, right? So when we get to these sorts of moral panics or politicians peddling parents' rights - parents' rights to do what? Basically treat their children like their own vanity projects.

LEWIS: Yeah, kind of picking up from where Jules left off, the word for breaking up with your parents legally is the same word we use in the context of slavery. Historically, it's emancipation.

LUSE: Emancipation, right. You know, also to your point about kids working outside the home, I had my first job when I was 16 years old at Panera Bread. I, like, went down there and I, you know, sold bagels or whatever for 15 hours a week or something like that. And I had taxes taken out of my paycheck, even though I wasn't entitled to full rights as an individual.

LEWIS: But you didn't vote.

GILL-PETERSON: Yeah, you could pay taxes, but you couldn't vote - the whole point of the American Revolution, ostensibly.

LEWIS: Exactly.

LUSE: Exactly.

LEWIS: Exactly.

LUSE: The way that minors are treated is not great for all the ways that you've laid out. But parents and guardians and caretakers of children are also set up in many ways to struggle in caring for their kids. It's kind of like a lose-lose-lose situation.


LUSE: Like, even for more well-resourced families, parents often don't receive the support that they need, which in turn means that kids don't receive the care they need...


LUSE: ...And the community as a whole becomes more fractured. Sophie, your book is all about how everyone loses within the nuclear family structure. Can you tell me more about how that sort of, like, lose-lose-lose situation plays out?

LEWIS: So, I saw a sort of emotional form of organized scarcity. And I really want to insist on that. It's organized scarcity.

LUSE: Oh, say more about that.

LEWIS: So, you know, the family is where we turn to receive our love and our intimacy and our...

LUSE: Right.

LEWIS: ...Feelings of belonging. And the lose-lose-lose also comes from the way that the sort of turning of ourselves towards the family, sort of inward, to get our needs met, trains us out of the habit that we might otherwise develop to turn towards each other outside in the common or public sphere to get our needs realized there. I don't want people to think that anyone's coming to take away their children or their grandma or whatever. I'm so happy for those of us who experience good families, good parents. This is something I completely celebrate.

But, you know, it is also important to point out that for many people, sadly, the family is the overwhelming place where femicide happens, where murder happens if you're a woman, you know, where child sexual abuse happens just hugely disproportionately is the family. It's family members. You know, it's a hard place to be for many people. So for all of those people who are getting their campaign on about save our children, they might want to direct their energies towards, you know, the nuclear patriarchal family.

GILL-PETERSON: Yeah, it's exactly this - I think, something we've been talking about but haven't had the chance to name outright yet. So Sophie's so helpfully has been reminding us that the family is meant to be a private institution, which is to say it's distinct from the public world, right? That can be kind of literal. We imagine that where the family is sort of synonymous with the home. Part of what makes it so hard to deal with that violence is that it happens in the private sphere. And the private sphere is supposed to be separate from the rest of the world and difficult to see.

And I think that's another element in this formula of lose-lose-lose. We have been trained, generation after generation, to take out aggression, frustration and suffering on the people we're supposed to love most, right? These are ways that we invite people to imagine and authorize through moral panic that it's OK to hurt people - right? - that it's OK to do that, that it's even good to do that, because you're preserving the family order. You're preserving your private sphere that belongs to you. Nothing good happens, right? If parents disown their kids, like, no one is doing any better.

LUSE: We're all, I believe, famously former children. What does it mean for us as adults that we all spent the first 18 years of our lives like this?

GILL-PETERSON: After we pass out of childhood, we literally can't seem to remember what it was like anymore. Now, of course, there's, like, a literal version of that. You just actually forget memories, but then there's just this broader cultural amnesia. Like, we just grow up in a way where we have to process and deal with all of the ways we were harmed and wronged because we were children, and part of what that experience often feels like, I'm sure we can all remember examples, is like - something bad is happening to me. And also, no one will tell you what it's called. No one will give you that language because you're too innocent to hear about it. And so then you grow up kind of having to live in the aftereffects of that experience.

I still feud in my head with my first grade teacher, who was absolutely awful towards me, was incredibly homophobic and so racist towards me and my family, right? Like, I can't let go of her because that was - not because she was, you know, especially a bad person. It was just one of my first encounters with arbitrary, unjust authority that has conditioned who I am, you know, ever since. But there's a flip side to all of this. That's the anxious, defensive, painful question of how we learn to live with the knowledge that we were all harmed in this peculiar way that doesn't have to happen.

We can flip that problem into one of the most fascinating, powerful, transformative possibilities for relearning human relationships - for relearning how to do politics, for relearning what it means to want a better world, for relearning relationships in general - right? What better time when things feel so cataclysmic for us to start where we are in our homes with the people that were supposedly here on earth to love and sit down with them and say, like, hey, I love and value you, whoever you are, right? What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of world do I want to live in? And is, like, our family structure helping us get to that world together?

LUSE: Sophie, Jules, thank you so, so much for coming on the show today and talking with us about this.

LEWIS: Brittany, it's been a huge pleasure. Thanks for the great, skillful guiding of the conversation.

GILL-PETERSON: Truly, what a joy. No one I'd rather be having this conversation with than you both, so thank you so much.

LUSE: Thanks again to historian Jules Gill-Peterson and author Sophie Lewis. Talking to Jules and Sophie gave me a lot more perspective on what it would mean to be a parent. Looking at how children are up against so much in the world has me less worried about how my kid will turn out and thinking more about how I'm going to make them feel. So up next, I talk to a children's therapist about how to be a safe place for them and get them ready for the world. Stay with us.


LUSE: We've talked about how kids are at the center of political fights these days, but not all battles are fought in public. Some are fought at home. Bedtime, dinnertime, screen time - in a way, those are all power struggles, too. And as I've been exploring my desire to parent, I've been trying to figure out how some people are turning these moments of conflict into opportunities to work together. And I'm not alone. The gentle parenting or conscious parenting approach has gotten incredibly popular in these past few years. Some people are pushing against the old adage of children should be seen and not heard. And there are so many ways to approach this, but lots of parents are united in wanting to acknowledge their children's thoughts and emotions, which sounds great, but where do we start? I called up Gerri Cadet Mareus. She's a therapist that works with children and their families in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Can you tell me a bit about why you wanted to work with children specifically?

GERRI CADET MAREUS: Yeah, because their voice kind of gets muted sometimes with all the big adults in this big society, and so children have a lot to say. Children have their own minds and their own inner world. And I think sometimes, adults maybe see them as an extension of themselves, but they're actually a whole separate human.

LUSE: But Gerri says there needs to be compassion for both children and for parents who were raised to feel ignored because, after all, all adults are former children. She tells me why it's important for kids to develop autonomy and how to raise children with more power than we had as kids.

For a very long time, we've kind of structured our society so that children are not allowed to have autonomy or not allowed to have a voice in the public sphere, right? What happens to children when they are denied autonomy?

MAREUS: Well, there could be many different scenarios, right? I mean, if you feel like your voice is not really heard or honored, what do you do when you don't feel like you're being heard? Do you conform to, like, other people's ideas? Do you have anxiety because you're holding in your thoughts and feelings and emotions? There's a practice, right? You're practicing how to be autonomous growing up. Like, you're having different spaces where you could practice that, right? So then when you do become 18, like, wow, OK, I've practiced the skill. I've learned the skill. Now I can move in the world because I've done this before. But if there's a notion that children should be seen and not heard, there is a conflict, and that's why we see so many difficulties when we're 18, 19, 20, 21, right? Oh, wait. All of a sudden, I'm supposed to be autonomous, but I really haven't had the tools or the practice or felt safe enough to really have my voice heard.

LUSE: That's interesting. That's so interesting - practice. You can spend your childhood practicing so that when you become a quote, unquote "legal adult," you feel more confident, it sounds like.


LUSE: Childhood is, by default, the first time we have to reckon with power. And as children, we can't access it, right? How do you see children begin to grapple with power and their lack of it in your practice?

MAREUS: Yeah. Well, I think even as little kids, there's just, like, battles at the toilet bowl. There's battle at the dinner table, right? There's so many ways in which they're trying to reclaim some of that power. And I think some caregivers will say, well, they're just being defiant and disrespectful. But I think there's something about they're really trying to gain some sense of personhood, right? If you're always being told what to do, how to sit, how to act, when to talk, when to eat, when to sleep - they really don't have control over their day to day, right? And so...

LUSE: Yeah.

MAREUS: ...There is this notion of, like, OK, well, you know what? I don't quite want to go to sleep right this minute, right? I want - I need 10 more minutes. And so where's the shared power? Where's - is there a shared power that could be cultivated in families?

LUSE: Shared power...

MAREUS: (Laughter).

LUSE: That is just, like, not a phrase - well, it's not a phrase I have a lot of familiarity with outside of work, maybe. You know, I hadn't thought about that as a way to describe how a parent and a child might work together. Like, talk to me more about what you mean by that. I'm trying to visualize it - shared power.

MAREUS: All right. Because I think there's a way in which we say, well, your bedtime is 9 o' clock, and that's that. Is there a way be like, well, Mom, certain nights can it be 8:50? I wonder if certain nights it could be 9:15. There's a shared understanding. There's a shared decision-making. It's shared. It's not just top-down, right?

LUSE: So it's like - and when you're talking about negotiating, like, I can imagine there might be some parents listening who are just like - they can't imagine negotiating with their child on so many different points of decision-making or so many different, quote, unquote, "rules." What do you say to to people for whom that sounds like - the idea of negotiation sounds scary?

MAREUS: Well, it sounds scary maybe because they haven't quite experienced it themselves.

LUSE: My eyebrows just raised. You just - you said something...

MAREUS: Well, if you're talking about intergenerational patterns, if you haven't fully experienced negotiation as a child, it is going to feel really foreign for you to negotiate with the child. But if we want to cultivate decision-making, problem-solving, autonomy as children, where can we start? And a good way to start would be, let's decide together. There's some things that are non-negotiable, like safety. You know, when there are safety concerns, it's not...

LUSE: Right. You don't want your 6-year-old driving a car, like...

MAREUS: Right. You don't want them to drive a car.

LUSE: No, no.

MAREUS: But if there are - but Brittany, if there are things in the household that are reasonable, that's where you start to build that in children. Like, they actually have a voice in what happens to their body.

LUSE: In your practice, when you see a child that, like, needs more space or more agency, how do you broach that to the parents? Like, what do you say to them?

MAREUS: Yeah, that's a great question. I like to have the parents think about what it's been like for them. Have they been in situations where they haven't been able to fully voice their concern, and what that's been like. Sometimes parents will give examples of things that happen at work. Because I want them to connect to that feeling of their feelings not being honored. Because if they can't quite connect to it themselves, it's going to be hard for them to see it in their child. And then we can kind of translate it to like, well, what do you think is going on with your child in those moments?

LUSE: And then does something click? Like...

MAREUS: Sometimes it does. Yeah, that's the beauty of it. Sometimes you're like, oh, right. But sometimes what happens is it's unconscious. It's how we were raised, right? We're doing the same thing that happened to us as children, right? So then when it becomes - they become aware of it, they're like, oh.

LUSE: What does it mean to love children through respecting their personhood?

MAREUS: What does that mean? Can I read from bell hooks?

LUSE: Go for it.

MAREUS: All right. (Reading) When we love children, we acknowledge by our every action that they are not property, that they have rights, that we respect and uphold their rights. Without justice, there can be no love.

LUSE: Why is that passage so meaningful to you?

MAREUS: Yeah. It's meaningful because I think there's not space for them to fully be a human with their own - and express their own thoughts and feelings, right? So I think it's an injustice to, like, exert so much power and authority in their everyday lives. I think they should have a space.

LUSE: Gerri, thank you so, so much. This was a healing conversation, I have to say.

MAREUS: (Laughter) OK. Thank you, Brittany.

LUSE: Thanks again to children's therapist Gerri Cadet Mareus. And thank you to all the kids we heard in this episode - Showa (ph), Nazrat, Julia (ph), Zach and Xander. This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by...



MCBAIN: Liam McBain.


LUSE: Our editor is...


LUSE: Engineering support came from...



LUSE: We had fact-checking help from...


LUSE: Our executive producer is...


LUSE: Our VP of programming is...


LUSE: Our senior VP of programming is...


LUSE: All right. That's all for this episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. Talk soon.

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