NUMBER 861 • 3 NOVEMBER • STREET CHILDREN
Historically, the claims of any segment of society for greater autonomy have been objected to strongly as contradicting the natural order of things. One such objection to child streetism, already alluded to, is ideological. According to this view, if children are to grow properly into adult culture, then they must mature gently, which is to say that they must remain children until they are admitted officially into adulthood. From this position it is derived that every child has a right to be a child, which liberal theory equates with the formal exemption of children from the adult world (Lees & Mellor, 1986), if not their forced expulsion.
Another possible objection is political. For example, child advocacy groups may fear that depicting children as potentially independent might be used to justify spending cuts in much needed child welfare programs. Also, this depiction might anger some of the caring professions, such as social workers, who see themselves as the custodians of empowerment. The idea that there are certain groups that can do for themselves without being empowered by others might be professionally offensive.* Finally, many people believe that the very idea that certain children can manage on their own simply contradicts the “common-sense” definition of childhood by which children are supposed to be dependent and vulnerable.
Some of these objections are more telling than others, and none can be dismissed out of hand. However, to regard child streetism negatively just because of predominantly Northern, middle-class perceptions and norms of conduct and the ensuing definition of childhood is grossly inappropriate, especially before eradicating its causes. Wellwishers who insist on their ideal image instead of confronting reality feasibly would do better if they learned to listen to the street children themselves and to respect their choices. Otherwise, they might end up doing more harm than good.
* A pertinent example of this possibility is the slogan of a charitable organization spotted by this author in South Africa: “Help our street children to help themselves by donating directly to the fund and NOT the children.”
Bar-On, A. (1998). So what’s wrong with being a street child? Child & Youth Care Forum, 27(3), pp.201-222