Children form a major part of society representing a significant demographic component. Baxter (2005a:10) argues that children represent up to 60% of the population responsible for the creation of the archaeological record. The challenge is in developing the competency to recognise them as well as develop effective theoretical and methodological approaches to better allow inferences about their lives. My research addresses this challenge with an archaeological investigation of European childhood in Australia spanning the years 1788 - 1901. This period encompasses the colonial era – an era rich with complex social rules, rights and expectations; an era in which children were supposedly enculturated via a process of socialisation with ideals and values imposed upon them in order to achieve a range of desired and expected outcomes as determined by adults. As Baxter (2005a:23) argues, explanations regarding the transmission of cultural knowledge from adults to children have long been associated with the concept of socialisation. However, many issues and situations in this process were negotiable. The concept of socialisation is problematic in that it denies children’s agency. Sociological research demonstrates that children are ‘active social agents who interpret, select and appropriate ideas and behaviours in particular ways’ (Damon 1977:8-9). They have their own sense of self with their own identities, priorities, hopes, fears and views – in a real sense, their own culture and are capable of interacting and negotiating with other people and their environment in complex and varied ways. Recognising that children are social actors who are not merely affected by society nor do they simply internalise society and culture, but rather they actively contribute to cultural production and change, is therefore fundamental to understanding children’s agency. Theoretical developments in contemporary studies of childhood reveal a better understanding of the relationships between children, society and culture, and the creativity and autonomy of children and peer cultures in contemporary societies (see Corsaro and Fingerson 2003:125).
Influenced by previous studies generated by both classic and contemporary theorists, this multidisciplinary study draws on theoretical developments in childhood research in the fields of social psychology, sociology, history, anthropology and archaeology in the archaeological analysis of childhood in colonial Australia. Because artefacts, including toys, are imbued with meanings that are dependent upon their social context, the research focuses on types of child-related material culture and children’s use of such items during their play and learning. Comprising data from 18 sites and museum collections throughout Australia the research provides a synthesis of childhood experiences during the colonial era and a rare glimpse into the everyday lives and minds of the children themselves. Unique in its methodological and theoretical approach, the research integrates social cognitive theory (a core property of agency theory) as outlined by Bandura (2006) with the various approaches to agency studies in archaeology, as outlined in Dobres and Robb (2005) and the application of the sociological theory of interpretive reproduction developed by Corsaro (1992; 1997) as the overarching approach. Whilst not denying the reality of degrees of adult influence and attempts of socialisation, interpretive reproduction focuses on childhood as a social construction resulting from collective action amongst children and between children and adults. It replaces traditional notions of socialisation with the view that children are co-creators of society who engage in a process of appropriation, reinvention, and reproduction, in the past and present, rather than a process of adaptation and internalisation. Utilising interpretive reproduction as the overarching theoretical framework has allowed greater visibility of children’s culture, agency and the creativity of the children themselves as opposed to society’s perceived expectations of the adults they were to become. Moreover, analysis shows that whilst adults controlled the sourcing, purchase and selection of material culture they deemed appropriate for the children, according to their ideals, hopes and aspirations, some children had a considerable degree of agency, creativity and choice, suggesting that it was not so much what the adults intended for the children but what the children intended for themselves.