Recovering children’s agency is not always a straightforward task, for their participation in social life and enquiry is always-already mediated by adult frameworks and understanding of children. Yet, that children play an important role as social agents, attending to, interpreting, participating and negotiating social structures and institutional contexts, is unquestionable. For as legitimate social actors, children can perform the critical task of reflecting to us the functioning of our social systems thereby offering different perspectives and possibilities for change. A few examples, drawn from my work as a child psychologist and researcher can illustrate this.
The first example is about Jishnu, a five-year old with severe motor difficulties and associated cognitive difficulties, who had been coming to me for several months after school, for remedial support. Sessions with Jishnu had largely been relaxed and playful, with Jishnu participating in the activity-based learning sessions with enthusiasm, until one evening when Jishnu seemed inexplicably upset from the start. Despite my efforts at getting Jishnu involved in the activities, he remained sullen and uncooperative. Unable to get much achieved, I finally decided to pause the session to find out what was wrong. Jishnu burst out in a fit of tears, ‘But it is so dark outside no.’ I looked outside and realized indeed that light was fading faster than usual (marking the transition to winter, and the earlier arrival of dusk). Further conversation with Jishnu revealed that he was upset because he wouldn’t be able to go home and play that day, as he was usually allowed to after every session, till dark. With no concrete sense of time yet, Jishnu like other five-year olds associated certain activities with external cues such as daylight and routines. In the brief conversation with Jishnu I realized the huge sacrifice he made each time he came for the session, giving up his playtime (often cheerfully) for extended hours of academic work. Jishnu’s outburst that day was a pointed reminder of how adult logics that shaped his world prioritized academic success over other forms of development and well-being. In protesting the loss of playtime, Jishnu made visible the narrowing and instrumentality of developmental goals, which prioritize school success over individual well being or liberty.
The instrumentality of the developmental goals of schooling was again made evident in another context. Here I describe the responses of high school students from government and low-cost aided schools in Bangalore to life skills education programmes, introduced to keep disadvantaged youth on a positive trajectory of development, in the context of exacerbating inequalities and structural risks. As developmental solutions, life skills programmes were meant to engage children in a set of experiential learning activities to cultivate skills for self-regulation, critical thinking, managing stress and emotions, enabling them to positively adapt by becoming entrepreneurs of their lives. Children responded to these classes, viewing them simply as ‘fun and games’, as they were significantly different in nature from their regular classes focused on academics. However, when asked to participate in activities, such as critical thinking or creative writing, children showed reluctance, and demanded ‘right’ answers to creative writing exercises or theatre improvization games.