Childhood; Critical & Queer Musings

Michael O’Loughlin
Childhood innocence? Critical and queer musings on the social construction of childhood

Critiques of childhood, musings on interpellation and desire, musings on sexuality and gender identity welcome. Psychoanalytic, post-colonial and queer theory lenses welcome.

Michael O’Loughlin, Professor at Adelphi University, New York, is on the faculty of Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies and in the School of Education. He is a clinical and research supervisor in the Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology and on the faculty of the Postgraduate Programs in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy at Adelphi. He published The Subject of Childhood in 2009 and edited Imagining Children Otherwise: Theoretical and Critical Perspectives on Childhood Subjectivity with Richard Johnson in 2010. He is co-editor with Glenys Lobban and Cora Smith of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy in South Africa: Contexts, theories and applications, published by Wits University Press in Johannesburg in 2013, He is editor of two volumes, Psychodynamic Perspectives on Working with Children, Families and Schools, and The Uses of Psychoanalysis in Working with Children’s Emotional Lives, both of which were published in 2013 by Jason Aronson. His interests include the working through of intergenerational and collective trauma, the social origins of psychosis and schizophrenia, and childhood subjectivity and the emotional lives of children.


March 23, 2015

In this blog I will provide updates on my own work theorizing childhood issues, and I welcome contributions from colleagues interested in offering updates on their work to push out the boundaries of the field.

In terms of short-term projects, I am currently working on a chapter for a psychoanalytic book in which I articulate my clinical approach to working with children. Simultaneously, I am working on a chapter on the origins of creativity in children for a book on creativity.  I have begun reading some Lacanian work intensively and for my clinical chapter, borrowing the title from Lefort & Lefort’s book, I use the notion of birth of the other to describe the tenuous path by which the child enters into subjectivity. This work, as well as Piera Aulagnier’s work on the violence of interpretation, and Colette Soler’s books on unconscious affect will allow me to articulate my understanding of the entry into subjectivity, and the complexities faced by the child who somehow cannot master the necessary transitions.  In the clinical paper I will illustrate the ways in which psychoanalytic work can engage a child with the possibility of desire and thereby of avoiding becoming stuck in some presymbolic state. For the chapter on the origins of creativity I use similar material to explore how disciplinary regimes at home and at school can induce foreclosure and limit a child’s capacity to experience the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. I will post updates when these projects are more evolved. Ultimately what is at stake here is a rupturing of binaries such as intellect/emotion; intrapsychic/social, and an attempt to articulate a theory of subjectivity [and hence practices of psychotherapy and education] that privilege possibility over assimilation, and desire over demand [ouch, more binaries!!]


Aulagnier,  P. (2001). The violence  of interpretation: From pictogram to statement. London: Brunner-Routledge.

Lefort, R. & Lefort, R. (1994). Birth of the other. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Soler. C. (2014). Lacan—The unconscious reinvented. London: Karnac.

Soler, C. (2014). Lacanian affects: The function  of affect in Lacan’s work. London: Routledge.


Resisting the normative, teleological, developmental paradigm of ECE: Articulating elements of a critical, diffuse understanding of child growth.

My larger project is to challenge the normative, teleological, and deterministic models that seems to underlie all educational and psychological work, as well as much of psychoanalytic work –  with children. Here is how I described the scope of this work at the RECE conference at Kent State in November, 2014:

In keeping with the conference theme,  I propose elements of an alternative paradigm for ECE, one that resists the dominant tropes of normativity and development, and, instead uses queer theory, critical psychoanalysis, social justice concerns, and rhizomatics to argue for more liberatory, inclusive, and non-teleological conceptions of childhood growth. 

Seeking to advance a paradigm to counter the normative, teleological, developmental worldview that has a strangle-hold on ECE, we present papers on the epistemophilic instinct and the imagination; on reclaiming the body of the child; on rhizomatics and the queer child; and on critical psychoanalytic and social justice considerations in understanding childhood subjectivity. We hope the session will serve as an invitation to participants to join us in advancing a credible, comprehensive understanding of a critical, situated childhood as an alternative to the context free, positivist, linear notion of a child as simply ‘growing up’ in some ‘developmentally appropriate’ way.

  • I find the tenaciousness of normative developmental models of childhood discouraging:
    • Teleological – deterministic notion of child’s possible life paths
    • Deterministic and prescriptive notions of curriculum
    • Dilemma of assimilation created by schooling
    • Blind to context
    • Mentalistic or intrapsychic
    • Linear
    • Epistemologicallly hegemonic
    • Normative
    • Developmental paradigm has achieved canonical status
    • Blind to power and ideology
    • One size fits all
    • Manufactured childhood is a discursive creation that embodies certain interests
    • Commodification of childhood and of children as material and consuming beings
    • What of those children born out of entitlement
    • Where are children’s bodies in school?
    • Is it possible to conceptualize knowing performatively and the child as agentic
    • When we say ‘growing up” why UP?
  • What of those children who refuse to play the game, or simply cannot?
  • an ethic of care and a language of critique
  • the role of ancestry, spirituality, history, culture and difference in our coming to be as subjects. I will argue that we must find a way to add greater political muscle to the urgent case for a more liberatory imaginary for future generations of children
  • the nurturance of imagination and the provision of a space for the working through of feelings
  • Do we have any room in our thinking for such sideways paths? Is “developmental delay”, with all of its connotations of pathology, retardation, and deficit, the only alternative to growing up? Stockton raises the question this way:
  • In The queer child (2009), Kathryn Bond Stockton speaks of the child who, faced with normative, linear, heterosexist notions of advancement, simply has “nowhere to grow” (p. 3). “Exquisitely rich problems await us. Among them is the matter of children’s delay: their supposed gradual growth, their suggested slow unfolding, which, unhelpfully, has been relentlessly figured as vertical movement upward (hence “growing up”) toward full stature, marriage, work, reproduction, and the loss of childishness. Delay, we will see is tremendously tricky as a conception, as is growth. Both more appropriately call us into notions of the horizontal – what spreads sideways – or sideways and backwards – more than a simple thrust toward height and forward time.” (2009, p. 4)
  • Stockton points to the queerness of notions of childhood which preclude consideration of “sex, aggression, secrets, closets, or any sense of what police call ‘a past’” (p. 30), thus revealing the core notion of the normative child as innocent and walled off, a child who “on its path to normativity, seems safe to us and whom we therefore safeguard at all costs” (p. 30).  As Bruhm and Hurley note in Curiouser: On the queerness of children (2004), childhood innocence is imbued with notions of asexuality and incipient heterosexuality. “
  • Since then I have attempted to articulate one dimension of an alternative epistemological understanding of the notion of childhood and the paths by which children might negotiate themselves to positions of desire, what Lacanians call parole pleine (full speech), and a capacity to question both the paths of their individual life trajectories and the collective paths that are offered by post-industrial societies that seem willing to market technological progress and material consumption as the solution to the conundrum of the existential meaning of life.
  • theory of embodied and embedded subjectivity
  • work obliquely with children (cf. O’Loughlin & Merchant, 2012) so that our services to children speak to desire and imagination instead of demanding rigid conformity and stifling uniformity
  • Subjectivity as a central concept . ‘Subjectivity’ as a central concept, therefore, allows us to become interested in the ways in which children become who they need to become by making use of the cultural and symbolic resources put at their disposal. Subjectivity is inherently situational. Conversely, it invites critical questions as to how familial (cf. Donzelot, 1979) and societal (cf. MacLeod, 2008) limitations on the provision and quality of symbolic resources available to a given child limit a child’s capacity for identificatory imaginings and for thinking the unthinkable. Can we facilitate subaltern idnetifications?
  • Adopting ‘subjectivity’ as a central organizing principle offers the opportunity to pose important political questions about the role of early childhood educators as guardians of the status quo with respect to gender, race, class, and ideological norms.
  • Yet, as Adam Phillips (1998) reminds us, Freud and other early psychoanalysts were fascinated with the child’s refusal of official knowledge and with her preoccupation with illicit knowing, particularly about the realm of sexuality and sex play. With a few notable exceptions (e.g., Dyson, 1993, 1997, 2003; Tobin, 1998) the unofficial worlds of childhood are typically ignored by researchers.
  • In addition, spectral knowing pushes the dimensions of knowing into new arenas, including ancestral, spiritual, and historical knowledges and realms of fantasy and the uncanny that are excluded by formal ontological understandings of knowledge as static. event-filled, and informational, and of child growth and development as teleological and normative. Perhaps oversimplifying, in the words of Christopher Bollas (1987), our being is in many ways shaped by “unthought knowns”- knowledges that we know, and that actively shape our psyche, but that in the ordinary course of events are tacit and not available to conscious awareness, not least for persons schooled in Western rational modes of thought. Such spectral knowledges occasionally burst into the open with unruly zest. What kinds of questioning might be possible for a child if we welcomed these unruly guests to the table?
  • What distinguishes this notion of inheritance and genealogical filiation (cf. Apfelbaum, 2002) is the dynamic nature of the pasts that are imaginable, and the potential, given optimal pedagogical or child-rearing conditions, for a particular child to explore gaps, fissures, points of rupture, and openings to multiple ways of experiencing and entering into possible subjectivity.
  • How might this conceptualization of subjectivity translate into pedagogical actions? I think perhaps the most fundamental commitment is to the question child. Can we permit the child, to reach for a place of desire? In my work as a therapist with children I see my primary attributes as an acutely attuned receptivity to the child’s emotions, and a capacity to resist obfuscating a child’s truth seeking with comforting platitudes
  • Can we capitalize on the discontinuities, fissures, ruptures and inconsistencies pf prevailing hegemonic practices?
  • Can we challenge technocratic, instrumental, teleological, and exclusively cognitivist notions of teacher preparation?

Recent writings:

O’Loughlin, M. & McLeod, B. (2015).  “Thinking Beyond Our Means:” Engendering a Depth Understanding of Trauma. In M. O’Loughlin & M. Charles (Eds.), Fragments of trauma and the social production of suffering: Trauma, History and Memory. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.


O’Loughlin, M. & Van Zile, P.T. (2014). Becoming revolutionaries: Toward non-teleological and non-normative notions of youth growth. In S. R. Steinberg & A. Ibrahim (Eds.), The critical youth studies reader. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

O’Loughlin, M. (2014). Waiting for the revolution. In M. Bloch. B. Swadener  & G. Cannella (Eds.), Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Care and Education: Critical Questions, New Imaginaries and Social Activism. New York: Peter Lang Publishing

O’Loughlin, M. (2013). The uses of psychoanalysis. In O’Loughlin, M. (Ed.). The uses of Psychoanalysis in Working with Children’s Emotional Lives. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.

What might critical citizenship look like for a young child, or a young child’s teacher?


For a genealogy of my earlier writings on this subject please visit my website:


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