Old painting of Hansel and Gretel

Deborah A. Lott’s Representations of Childhood in Literature

LIT 4010

It could be argued that the word “childhood” is one of those words that has as many meanings as there are people. While reading through Deborah A. Lott’s course syllabus and description for Representations of Childhood in Literature, I was swept up in my own personal mini-journey through a strange landscape of emotional resonances and reactions. I experienced discomfort, interest, identification, disagreement, and above all, the (not necessarily welcome) compulsion to reflect on my own experiences as a former child and current mother of young children. Which I will not do here. But as we all own “childhood” in the same way that we all own “language/ communication” and “existence,” I can imagine that each student who embarks on this ten-week inquiry has a similar yet uniquely individualized response to the subject matter.

“Childhood is as much an idea, a social construction, as a biological period. If students take only one thing from this class, that’s it,” says Deborah A. Lott, who studied English Literature and Film at UCLA, received her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch, and is a widely published author of creative nonfiction. As an Antioch instructor, Lott considers her first obligation to be creating a safe classroom community so students can respond to work freely and authentically.

She created the course out of her love of childhood, and her curiosity about how it continues to resonate in adult lives. She initially introduces the class to shifting representations of childhood through still images gleaned from a variety of cultures, and historic periods, and encourages students to comment on them and discuss their implications. The class reads works ranging from classic to contemporary, from fairy tales such and “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Little Match Girl,” to the novels, Jane Eyre, Room, and the Darkest Child, as well as the graphic novel, Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood. They also watch and respond through writing and discussion to films such as “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Florida Project,” and “The Bad Seed.”

Thematic questions are given in the syllabus as suggestions for consideration in the reading (or viewing) and discussion of each work, such as “Innocence vs. Knowledge/ Experience,” “Child as Other,” “Class/ Race/ Gender Issues and Anxieties,” and “Children and their Caretakers.” In the latter questions are posed like, “How do unrealistic idealizations of selfless mothers damage the relationship between children and parents?” Lott says that every time she teaches the course students have profound realizations about childhood itself, and how to represent it in all its richness in literature and media, as well as about their own childhood experiences.

From the “Child as Other” theme comes my favorite consideration both from a literary and personal perspective— “How is the subculture of childhood portrayed?” I love this. Thinking of childhood as a subculture shines a light on some possible reasons behind the confusion and frustration that adults often feel when confronted with the perceived idiosyncrasies of children. Like all of the social constructs we use to neatly organize and categorize the beautiful painful ephemeral chaos that is life, the idea of childhood (as opposed to the actual biological reality of it) provides for caretakers a convenient arena to play out our ideals, our regrets, our projections, our senses of responsibility, our fears, our memories, our hopes … The reframing of childhood as a subculture strikes me as empowering for all concerned, elevating the realm of childhood (and thus children) into an independent social group whose members have needs and motivations that are difficult for outsiders to understand. It imbues every child with the potential to grow through the imposed structures around them (which are varied and inevitable as no human or caretaker is perfect) into an authentic adult who may carry with them the battle wounds and missing pieces of their pasts, yet use them along with their earned strength and agency to be… awesome.

So many of us assume that because we were once children we know what is best for all children. This class discusses the power dynamics between adults and children, and the differences between the types of power each group is capable of wielding over the other. Lott uses a quote from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to illustrate one aspect of the sometimes subtle, sometimes brutal, and often disorienting dance undertaken by children and adults in the act of growing up and “helping” someone to grow up: “A child cannot quarrel with its elders, as I had done; cannot give its furious feelings uncontrolled play, as I had given mine, without experiencing afterwards the pain of remorse and the chill of reaction.”

Students have opportunities to do their own creative writing based on prompts, and to share (or not share) what they create. “We write about lies we told as children, and lies that parents told us and examine the meaning and purpose of those lies; we write about loss of innocence and gaining of knowledge moments; we write about the things and places that we cherished, and the friends who we inadvertently betrayed,” says Lott.

She also says that when two types of revelation collide, the personal ones and the literary ones, “when they [students] can feel how their experience echoes Jane Eyre’s in 19th century England, or Tangy Mae’s in The Darkest Child, those are the most exciting classroom moments.”

Here’s another super-charged question from the syllabus for the road: “What role does shame play in socializing and controlling our children?”

Did your entire life just flash before your eyes? Mine did.

Malia Gaffney holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She lives in LA.
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