Children Have Agency: Strategic Versus Tactical Agency

It is important to stress that this vulnerability is by no means absolute. The term child agency has been central to contemporary debates around childhood and has been a part of breakthrough childhood theories that are based on the notion of the competent child. “The competent child” contrasts historical images of children as passive victims of other people’s decision making. From birth, children’s preferences are constantly negotiated against the interests of their caregivers. The infant screams for food. The toddler learns that it can distract parental fighting by acting out. The girl child learns to calm down a violent father by imaging adult flirtation. Gradually, children develop overt or covert social strategies to defend or to advance their interests within their particular social setting.

Agency is a term closely related to the concept of power. Giddens  defines human agency as the capability of doing something. It involves responsibility, as the person in question either produces or prevents a certain outcome by not acting: it is in the power of the person to do differently. Drawing on De Certeau, Honwana distinguishes between strategic and tactical agency in her book about child soldiers in Africa. In short, the distinction corresponds to Bourdillon et al. who distinguish a proactive form of agency from a reactive one. Honwana points out that strategy assumes situational normality of some sort, a social setting where relations are generated with some level of autonomy.

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