In 1960, a French historian named Philippe Ariès published a cultural and bureaucratic history of the daily norms of childhood in early modern France. The book is Centuries of Childhood. Large parts of this book detail the development of the French school system, which should really only interest historians of subjectivity or of education, yet it was very widely read in the sixties by non-specialists, and its insights still broadly influence how children are thought about today. The early second-wave American feminist Shulamith Firestone includes Centuries of Childhood in ‘Down With Childhood’, a vivid and excoriating chapter of The Dialectic of Sex credited with bringing children’s oppression into the feminist critique of patriarchy, a connection that still holds. The key argument of Ariès’ book is sort of deranged and exciting, and leaves one altered; it’s that in medieval society, ‘the idea of childhood did not exist’. Ariès writes that this is ‘not to suggest that children were neglected, forsaken or despised’. Rather than ‘confusing’ the idea of childhood ‘with affection for children’, he wrote that ‘it corresponds to an awareness of the particular nature of childhood, that particular nature which distinguishes the child from the adult, even the young adult. In medieval society this awareness was lacking.’ 

Some of the sources Ariès hangs his theory on are questionable. One aspect of his methodology is art historical, meaning that he very straightforwardly analyses representations of people in figurative artworks, and uses his analysis as steadfast evidence. In one memorable section, Ariès looks at medieval paintings that depict baby Jesus as a shrunken down, fully proportional, ripped little adult perched on his virgin mother’s arm, like a hawk, or a leprechaun, determining that since these paintings don’t conceivably represent children, childhood as a category must not have existed either: 

Medieval art until about the twelfth century did not know childhood or did not attempt to portray it. It is hard to believe that this neglect was due to incompetence or incapacity; it seems more probably that there was no place for childhood in the medieval world. 

His logic is not exactly air-tight, but it is imaginative and provocative. Other examples of his interpretations of medieval artworks are just as entertaining: 

An Ottonian miniature of the twelfth century provides us with a striking example of the deformation which an artist at that time would inflict on children’s bodies … The miniaturist has grouped around Jesus what are obviously eight men, without any of the characteristics of childhood; they have simply been depicted on a smaller scale. 

… in a Psalter dating from late twelfth or early thirteenth century, Ishmael, shortly after birth, has the abdominal and pectoral muscles of a man. 

In an episode in the life of Jacob, Isaac is shown sitting between his two wives, surrounded by some fifteen little men who come up to the level of the grown-ups’ waists: these are their children. 

Ariès was accused by certain Anglophone historians of analytical overreach based on his scant sources. When an aristocratic child wore a little soldier’s outfit for his official portrait, they said, this did not prove that little boys dressed like small men all the time, but merely suggested the conventions of official portraiture. Art history is not Ariès’ only source, though; he draws together various other primary documents to illustrate a moment in history when adults and children appeared to lead slightly different but integrated lives. Without school – a way of segregating people by age, Ariès convincingly argues – to go to, medieval children learnt alongside adults, worked alongside them, danced, celebrated, and played games with adults.  

One document Ariès studies is the personal diaries kept by the Dauphin of France’s doctor in the late seventeenth century. There he finds a model of childhood quite alien to our own. Louis, who would become King Louis XIII, obviously did not lead a typical life, but the diaries do give some indication of the polyvalence expected of children before formal schooling became popular (and then mandated). The doctor records that by seventeen months, the little toddler-prince ‘plays the violin and sings at the same time’. As he learns to walk, Louis enjoys spending time with the soldiers, and he plays with ‘a little cannon’. At three, he participates fully in the seasonal festivities, dressing up, telling jokes and attending balls and ballets. By five, Louis is ‘watching farces, at seven, comedies’. We can presume that ordinary, non-regal French medieval children did not attend the ballet, but they did develop their independence and capabilities early because it was common for them to work as helpers in other families’ homes. This created kinship networks well beyond the immediate biological family. Ariès also says that these children were told stories at bedtime, as were adults. They participated in the seasonal festivals, just as the adults did. Children played with the same dolls that adults played with. Ariès shows that because of these more fluid distinctions between adults and children, not only were children more skilled than modern children tend to be, but also adults were less burdened by the life-sapping responsibilities and had more time to play. Children were not just adults; adults were also, sort of, children.  

The argument is invigorating. If, as Ariès demonstrates in more ways than one, childhood is not a natural category, but the product of institutions and cultural practices that tend to change over time and place, then our category of ‘child’ will almost certainly be understood differently in the future, and elsewhere, than how we understand it in our own particular world. The idea that no fixed nature belongs to children, and that what is constructed can be reconstructed, provides a historical basis for children’s liberation. It implies that adulthood, too, is a historical category.  

I thought a lot about Ariès’ book while I was reading Jordana Silverstein’s excellent new history, Cruel Care, another book about the invention of childhood. More specifically, Silverstein studies the ways in which the cult status of ‘the child’ – ‘the sentimentalising of children imagined to be suffering, innocent and powerless’ – is imagined and exploited by Australian politicians and bureaucrats to enact cruel policies in their name. Rather than studying the historical artefacts of children’s lives to ascertain the existence of ‘childhood’ as Ariès does, Silverstein takes as her question: ‘How are children seeking asylum leveraged by governments and public servants for political ends, and why does the public allow this to happen?’ She answers it by analysing emotional discourses and how they come to produce (rather than merely describe) children’s vulnerabilities. Her focus ‘is not on defining who is a child’; instead, she is ‘concerned with how the population category of child refugees and asylum seekers is produced and defined within policy discourse and practice’. 

Silverstein is an academic historian; the book is the culmination of her postdoctoral research, and so it mostly conforms to the formal protocols of contemporary scholarly writing. I say this with some ambivalence, because while I believe there are some important politico-aesthetic problems with this form – how many titles and dates can you attribute to a new person in a single clause without losing your reader? is positivism the only frame through which knowledge can be credibly produced? – meticulous detail is vital to a book that aims to document such a wretched period in Australia’s border history. Cruel Care weaves together literary, historical, journalistic, sociological, and other interdisciplinary accounts to build its theoretical basis and perspectival frame. Like some of the key influences cited in her work – Sara Ahmed, Chelsea Watego, Joseph Pugliese, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Crystal McKinnon, and Joy Damousi – Silverstein applies her scholarly expertise to radical political ends, though she exercises restraint in this regard, leaving the reader to draw their conclusions. 

One of these is, as I read it, a children’s liberation subtext: without categorically claiming it, Silverstein leaves space for her reader to imagine children as thoroughly agentic subjects capable of decision-making, moral activity, and self-advocacy. The other is an anti-statist position. Again, Silverstein doesn’t out and say it, but a powerful implication of her argument is that the deep entanglement of Australia’s ‘white sovereignty’ and its ‘carceral border regime’ disqualifies this nation state from its supposed natural, or rational, authority. Indeed all states maintain their borders through violence and population management, and a structuring assumption of Cruel Care is that there are ways for people to organise themselves other than the nation state.  

For a general reader, a ‘policy history’ does not sound particularly thrilling. Yet Cruel Care synthesises its ample secondary source materials with a range of primary documents that are confronting and sometimes exciting. At one point, Silverstein comes across notes by social workers about unaccompanied minors in their care in holding facilities in the 1970s and 80s. These are thoroughly disturbing documents: they describe in invasive detail young people’s appearance, affect, sociability, and family and financial circumstances, demonstrating the extraordinary levels of surveillance and documentation to which people trying to cross the Australian border without prior permission are subject. Silverstein also collects compelling and surprising oral testimonies in one-on-one interviews with policymakers, including former high-raking civil servants and several former Ministers of Immigration. Importantly, Silverstein decides against interviewing current and former child refugees, who are surveilled and documented many times over by both the state and white researchers. She recognises that they can, will, and do speak for themselves from the authority of their experiences, and her powers of access are better used elsewhere. Instead, she seeks out ‘the voices of people who are rarely heard’, people who in fact ‘hold significantly greater cultural and material capital than [her] and most of [her] readers’. The interviews are personal, occasionally edgy, and awkward. I wanted to read the transcripts in full.  

Silverstein’s larger frame draws out the affective links between the various violent manifestations of Australia’s white imaginary, including the Stolen Generations, White Australia Policy, the NT Intervention, Children Overboard, and the decades-long practice of arbitrarily detaining child refugees. Their justification in public policy is, Silverstein says, quoting Aileen Moreton-Robinson, ‘part of the “possessive logic of patriarchal white sovereignty”: a mode of government that centres on ownership, possession and control’. This white sovereignty is expressed emotionally, often involving discourses of ‘caring’ for children and what Lee Edelman calls ‘reproductive futurism’ by way of incarcerating real, living child refugees to save hypothetical ones from travelling towards the border without a visa. Silverstein tells us that emotions are ‘the lens through which governments, bureaucracies, public servants and human-rights advocates see and articulate a vision of themselves, of child refugees and asylum seekers, and of the Australian nation’.  

Cruel Care studies the ways government policies dominate and exclude hyper-managed population categories, particularly Aboriginal people and asylum seekers, linked affectively through weaponised narratives of children’s ‘innocence’ and discourses of care. Silverstein’s very title refers to ‘a form of care where policymakers claim they are being compassionate as they act in deeply harmful ways. Where systemic violence is perversely justified as acts of necessary kindness’. The book contributes to the ‘care’ turn in the humanities, while it critiques and expands some of this turn’s often under-examined assumptions about the unqualified decency and kindness of care.  

Oral history is, as Silverstein writes, a way of ‘wending past and present’. The form also elicits confronting disclosures. Former senior servant and diplomat John Menadue tells Silverstein that (in her words) ‘there is a deep-seated fear in Australia about asylum seekers arriving on boats, and that Australians will never be comfortable with people making their own way without prior authorisation to Australia via sea. That is why, he suggested […] the boats need to be controlled.’ Another of Silverstein’s subjects, a former public servant called Wayne Gibbons, explains the rationale behind mandatory detention for unplanned border arrivals, namely, to interrupt the pattern of new migrants finding support in their local communities for their residency claims. Gibbons phrases this quite differently, stating that he wanted to ‘“deny the product that’s being marketed by people smugglers” by “preventing illegal immigrants living in the community, where they would often enlist the support of local citizens to help them stay”’. By ‘“pull[ing] [immigrants] out of the community, … they will find it harder to solicit local support”’. Gibbons’ disdain for ‘local citizens’ here is quite shocking; if local citizens apparently have no problem sharing their communities with new migrants, and will in fact support their residency applications, then who is his carceral border policy for, exactly? This tells us a great deal about how the Australian nation is able to perpetuate its fantasy of control over ‘who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’. Who are our public servants? How are they selected? Whose interests do they serve? Gibbons is the same public servant who signed off on the fraudulent claim by his colleague Greg Andrews, acting as an ‘anonymous youth worker’ on Lateline, that ‘there was a paedophile in Mutitjulu – an Aboriginal community in Central Australia – who was trading sex for petrol’ – a claim that would be used to instigate the NT ‘intervention’. This further demonstrates the argument made by Silverstein (and others) about the affective link drawn by policymakers between the population groups they marginalise: ‘Gibbons emotionally linked creating policy for refugees and for Indigenous people, narrating them both as projects of what [she] would identify as colonial control.’ That is, colonial control of those who exist outside the controlled population that ‘[s]ettler societies get to curate’ (James Button’s words), a project Australia pursues ‘more aggressively than just about any other nation’. 

Politicians’ and bureaucrats’ memories of their work also yield fruitful narratives for analysis, allowing Silverstein to trace how emotions produce ‘a form of control shaped by practices of benevolent care’. Almost without exception, each of the interviewed policymakers privileges their own emotions over those of the people forced to live out the reality of their policies. As she says, ‘These politicians understand themselves to be doing good things; they remember their impact fondly’. Something else I noticed was that policymakers, on all sides of politics, never infer the feelings of children from their own experience of having once been a child. Instead, they talk about their own children, babies drowned at sea, or the abstract figure of the child. ‘As a father,’ says Clive Palmer; ‘As someone who is the extraordinarily proud father of a seven-month-old,’ says Adam Bandt; ‘I care about my children, I care about my friend’s children. I care about the child I see fall over in front of me at the shopping centre,’ says Andrew Gilles. Clearly, as Silverstein argues, ‘This form of narrative-making is strategic.’ Sentimental discourses of children work in multiple directions, looping to justify children’s incarceration as a deterrent against ‘people smugglers’ who exploit children, and also mobilising laws and conventions designed to protect children from incarceration. Silverstein interviews Gillian Triggs, who headed the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention in 2014. For Triggs, the focus on children was a ‘legal decision’ to bring Australia into line with its legal obligations, with the subsidiary goal of critiquing the institution of mandatory detention. There was the ‘strategic advantage’ that such a focus ‘would move people more’. 

I suspect the refusal or avoidance of one’s own childhood is both strategic and a psychic necessity. When a policymaker insists on the incapacities and vulnerabilities of children, it behooves them to have never been a child themselves. When we (adults) think of children, it’s pleasurable to recall the lovely (sometimes evil) young people we know, whom we try our best to nurture, protect, and delight. This feels good, because it’s not them we are thinking about, but our idealised selves. It is much more confronting and disloyal to remember our own childhoods, which, even if we were lucky and loved, were almost certainly defined by total control exercised over our time, our minds, and our bodies. Whether or not this care was fair, or truly benevolent, or even enjoyable, does not change the reality that care is a relationship of power; it can be a form of control.  

Childhood is our first experience of care as almost total domination. Young children also dominate and control their parents – being cared for can make you a tyrant. And so any analysis of care that ignores the struggle for recognition, freedom, and power within a unit or system of care is bound to fail. I don’t mean to say that relationships of dependency are characterised only by neurotic struggles, needless conflict, and oppression, but that equilibrium and fellow feeling in systems of care can only be won by recognising the other’s struggle to care and be cared for. This requires a certain degree of equality and a willingness to recognise the others’ failings. Where a care relationship does not proceed from shared sympathy between carer and cared-for while both are engaged in the grind of maintaining life, it will be defined by toxic and narcissistic love. Toxic care is the only possible relationship between, say, an unaccompanied child migrant and the Minister for Immigration who is their legal guardian, because the two can never meet in a scene of mutual struggle. Caring requires us to be vigilant about whether the care we give and receive controls us or others in tolerable or intolerable ways, and to struggle against the intolerable. Even the tolerable requires a willingness to negotiate the balance of power. All children bristle against their infantalisation and their confinement. All children want to grow up. We know this because we have lived it. ‘Never were the rights of man ever so disregarded as in the case of the child,’ wrote Maria Montessori. ‘Children are repressed at every waking minute,’ says Shulamith Firestone. ‘Childhood,’ for Firestone, ‘is hell’. 

In 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote:  

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes. 

Though I would like very much for this ‘sordid necessity’ to be relieved once and for all, no extant economic or political system has succeeded in doing so. In our current political economy, some people are relieved of their burden by displacing it onto others down the labour chain. Whatever ease we experience in our lives is a result of others’ care, sure – but also, crucially, their exploited labour. The ‘care’ turn in the humanities attempts to confront the problem of care labour by thinking of systems for redistributing care’s burden. The ‘care turn’, then, should be a welcome one for people interested in the critical nexus of gender and labour, but there is something about it I don’t trust. I fear that it collapses the distinction between women and their traditionally prescribed social roles, mobilising the worst, most Victorian stereotypes about Christian ladies and their good deeds. I am concerned that it underplays the abuse of power that commonly defines relationships of dependency, and the coloniality and paternalism that so often underpins these.  

My concern about the weaponisation of care is what drew me to Silverstein’s book, which contributes to a growing critique of institutions of care. Maggie Nelson writes that in 2016 she was invited to go on a museum panel event to discuss ‘the aesthetics of care’. ‘Why,’ she wonders, was her ‘first response’ to this phrase, ‘as something that would extend beyond an animating principle for some artists, yuck? Nelson observes the risk in breaking off the ‘caring’ from ‘uncaring’ artists (whose explorations of violence and cruelty make them vulnerable to accusations of doing harm), and of settling into a cycle of disposability with respect to ‘problematic’ artists – ‘the “idealize, degrade, discard” logic that characterises a narcissistic apprehension of other human beings, which is to say, a non-apprehension of them’. This describes a particularly hypocritical strand of ‘care’ thinking, and might usefully – and more globally – be applied to ways in which forms of paternalism – or rather, the leveraging of an idealised maternal solicitude – are endemic to care’s institutional manifestations (I include here interpersonal institutions).  

There’s a restrictive tendency, I think, to understand ‘care’ as getting tucked into bed with a hot cup of cocoa, or to theorise the stubbornly gendered care of raising children, but not to attend to it when it appears, very frequently, in the titles of inquiries into the systematic abuse of young and elderly people in ‘care’ facilities. What might be termed ‘care feminism’ obviously does not describe a single position, and not all of its thinkers overvalue the socio-‘biological’ link between femininity, maternity, and the occasional (and culturally exaggerated) joys of caring, but many of the texts I have come across really do overstate these positive aspects of care instead of facing its moral lever for the purposes of domination and control. Injustices and outright atrocities are often committed in the name of a caring morality, particularly when the figure of the child is invoked. Abortion bans in several western countries? The rights of the hypothetical child! Movements preventing same sex couples from adopting or marrying? Won’t somebody think of the children!? Even the unequivocally genocidal slaughter of thousands of Palestinian children has been couched in the language of avenging murdered babies. As Silverstein and many others before her have argued, ‘caring for the children’ has been used to remove children from their kinship networks entirely, and to incarcerate and detain them. 

Can the baby speak? Well, not typically. But children can and do, and there are large stakes in silencing them, and then exploiting the vulnerabilities in the wake of their silence. As a rhetorical device, nothing conjures up toxic, conservative maternity (or its moral hypocrisy and sentimental dishonesty) better than the plea to ‘think of the children’. The sanctimonious Helen Lovejoy of The Simpsons cries out ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children!?’ at everything and nothing. Even then, the joke was that it was a lame joke. In White Tears/Brown Scars, Ruby Hamad calls it the ‘Lovejoy Trap’, a ‘bait and switch’ used to trick ‘us into abandoning the actual discussion at hand’. How can something so stale not only persist in political discourse, but actually shape it? How is it that we have allowed language to be so thoroughly emptied of meaning? The children in Australian detention centres, many of them unaccompanied, did speak up against their incarceration, and Silverstein cites some of their extraordinary protest writings for the serious contributions they are. Just as Centuries of Childhood can be read as a history for children’s liberation, Cruel Care empowers its readers to be alert to the interests served by the discursive production of children’s vulnerability, and it prompts us to take children seriously as agentic subjects capable of self-advocacy and political critique.  

For the most part, Cruel Care is not ‘creative nonfiction’. It says what it’s going to say, it says it using ample and exacting evidence, and it says what it has said. This is for the best, accomplishing what many have thought but few have so meticulously demonstrated. The difference between this kind of prose and a more ‘literary’ style is not to do with the quality of diction or rigour of thought, but rather that a reader expects a ‘literary’ text to layer its multiple and possibly conflicting meanings using devices like allusion, parataxis, subtext, and metaphor. We tend not to trust historians who bury secret meanings in their books, or play games with generic expectations. Still, I was delighted to see Silverstein play some literary games in Cruel Care. In her introduction, she frames her interest in the topic of Australian refugee policy by sharing with the reader that her own grandparents, Zosia and Wolf, ‘came to Australia as stateless refugees’ to escape the hell of the Holocaust. Silverstein describes how her family are ‘moulded by trauma, endurance, resistance, luck and survival that is carried across generations in ways that we often cannot fully understand. The border crossing is not the end of the story’. Later in the book, Silverstein reverses and complicates this personal revelation. ‘For anyone who has done any kind of media training,’ she writes, ‘the use of personal stories and emotional language will feel familiar. This approach is regularly used to communicate and mount a campaign, and to win an argument.’ She then adds, ‘In the beginning of this book, in the opening of the prologue, you can even see me using a version of it. The pertinent question for us is: where do these forms of communication take us? Where can they take us?’ [Italics mine.] Silverstein’s meta-criticism here questions the extent to which anecdotal sentiment is mobilised and manipulated to political ends. She shows us how simple and easy it can be to seduce an audience by appealing to their soft, sticky hearts. Sentiment is dangerous, she seems to be saying, because it works invisibly.  

But another reversal occurs in the book’s conclusion. Here, Silverstein writes of a visit to Poland, from which her grandparents were expelled. She says a Kaddish and takes selfies at the site of her family’s apartment, ‘now a carpark’, to mark both her family’s profound loss and their continuing endurance. This very moving anecdote shows us how feeling, the book’s critical object, binds us together despite ourselves. The scene also illustrates the truth that of course the border crossing ‘is not the end of the story’. The children and grandchildren of people whose lives have been interrupted by Australia’s shameful border policies will carry these histories with them, and many will use what they know to liberatory ends, as Silverstein does in this book. ‘It is possible to fight against cruelty,’ she writes, ‘led by those most in its path – for they know the way out.’