When does childhood end? And does it ever even exist in nature,or is it a construction of law and custom? Questions that are now being disagreed about and deliberated on by various aspects of the Indian state the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights wants everyone under 18 to be legally a child,and the labour and HRD ministries disagree have a long pedigree. And,in fact,they are among those that most sharply divide scholars that operate at the intersection of history,sociology and psychology.
On one side are those who take what is,in the 21st century,thought the more natural view: that childhood is a well-defined phase; that there is something sacred about the period that it is a time of innocence,a time when children deserve to be protected. Starting from the Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau,the time of life before reason meant that children had access to,enviably,a less structured world,and that they must be therefore insulated from the decisions and choices of adult life. Nonsense,say others,the tendency to idealise childhood means that we treat children as incompetent and dependent in modern societies. But in other eras that was shown up as a myth. Children were considered responsible members of the household. One famous comparison,from Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English: Today,a four year-old who can tie his or her shoes is impressive. In colonial [American times,four-year-old girls knitted stockings and mittens and could produce intricate embroidery.
This is one of those disputes that arent likely to end soon. Each side can claim a compelling story. And,in a country where as many as 25 million children might spend their childhood working,the debate is as far from academic as is imaginable.