In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nation and Childhood

  • Introduction
  • Overviews, Collections of Papers
  • Politics of Nation, Childhood, and Children
  • Nation and Education Institutions
  • National Identity and Subjectivity
  • Banal and Everyday Nationalism

Childhood Studies Nation and Childhood
Zsuzsanna Millei
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0282


The nation-state is the prime organizing political and social force since the industrial age, creating institutions, such as modern childhood, the school, or welfare, and seeking to deliver materially better lives for citizens. During the formation of nation-states, the newly established science of sociology created a conceptualization of the nation as a living organism, with developing children being one of its most crucial components. The nation-state needed a citizenry that can bear political responsibilities and rights. The founding of the secular government school system, welfare institutions, and the family (mothers) had been given major roles in the formation of a citizenry from children. One of the most important roles of schools even today is to create a citizenry that is loyal to the nation and feels belonging to the nation as a community upheld by some commonalities in identity, ideals and values, and practices. Childhood and nation are both constructs—they are an idea, a social boundary, and a social institution. Both constructs are in continual change and require continuous tending. There are at least four ways nation and childhood intertwine. First, a major intersection of nation and childhood is that children are socialized into a national identity; therefore, one cannot not be a citizen of a contemporary nation-state and still have some form of legitimate identity. Second, nation and childhood intertwine along the notion of development. The notion of development transforms the development of children into as a resource, and parallel with the progress of nations, development makes them less or more advanced or less or more primitive. In this way, the future of the nation, both real and imagined, is intertwined with the future of children and childhood. In debates about the future, childhood stands in the crosscurrent of various competing cultural and political projects that are formed at the intersections of gender, race, class, citizenship, culture, religion, and nation. Third, notions of childhood help in reproducing certain views about nations, and certain views about the nation shape childhood and define children’s experiences. The fourth intersection is how children relate to the idea of the nation, how they define their subjectivities in relation to its terms and reproduce or recreate the nation and nationalist projects of which they have been the objects in their own terms. Childhood socialization, experiences, and memories function as resources for nationalist sensibilities.

Overviews, Collections of Papers

There are few collections that focus on the intersections of childhood and nation. The first of these is a special issue in the journal Childhood, Stephens 1997, which explores the cultural politics of childhood and nation, looking at various facets such as how international, local, and group politics and war affect children and children’s consciousness, and how in turn children experience, understand, resist, or reshape these kinds of cultural politics that envelop their lives. Millei 2015–2016 partly continues Stephens’s agenda with an interdisciplinary approach in a two-part special issue. Authors show how processes of migration, globalization, and nation-building contest or interplay with the politics of the nation as it intersects with place, gender, and identity formation. Other contributions focus on the formation of national belonging through spatial socialization, media, textbooks, and children’s literature and with objects, such as the baby possum skin cloak that Indigenous children in South-Eastern Australia wore and kept. Others explore the role of objects in the unmaking and remaking of the nation. Millei and Imre 2015, an edited volume, focuses more on elite notions of the nation and explores the government and representations of the nation and childhood; these representations uptake in various domains and their resistances, in policy, literature, preschool and public practices, and national and transnational subject formation in families, education, international fora, and migration. Tröhler, et al. 2022 works within education and uses historical and current case studies from education policy to pedagogical practice and shows how nation and national belonging are promoted as somewhat concealed within frames of education. The edited book Kelen and Sundmark 2013 explores questions of nationhood, diversity, and identity across the Anglo-American world of research. The contributors show the many ways children’s literature is a key instrument of culture connecting child and nation. Chapters explore the history of nation-building and the future imagined in stories, and how the public learned and critiqued the nation from minority and global perspectives, including Indigenous, empire, globalization, and a cosmopolitan consciousness. Swain and Hillel 2010 is a history collection that explores how the discourse of child rescue, originating in Britain and spread to Australia and Canada, and extending to Indigenous children, served nation-building purposes and legitimated the violent removal of children from their families and their reshaping into a national citizenry. Millei and Imre 2021 takes a bottom-up view of the nation in a special journal section with a focus on children and how they understand, receive, and remake the nation through their mundane acts. The contributors study the ways children participate in a national culture on a day-to-day basis and how they interpret, replicate, resist, and contest nationhood in ordinary practices of everyday life in stable democracies.

  • Kelen, Kit, and Björn Sundmark, eds. The Nation in Children’s Literature: Nations of Childhood. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    The emergence of nation-states and the creation of national citizenry brought about the rise of children’s literature. The book shows how notions of childhood in literature shapes the formation of discourses of the nation and how literature represents, constructs, and shapes historically different national experiences. It also discusses how forces of globalization have challenged national ideals through children’s literature and film.

  • Millei, Z., ed. Special Issue: The Cultural Politics of “Childhood” and “Nation”: Space, Mobility and a Global World. Global Studies of Childhood 4.3 and 5.1 (2015–2016).

    DOI: 10.1177/2043610615573370

    In this two-part special issue, intersections of nation and childhood are explored in a variety of contexts across the globe. Researchers study state, family, and NGO’s discourses of education, health and welfare, curriculum, textbooks, children’s books, and constructions of global/national/cosmopolitan citizenship. Contributions also explore how children encounter and learn discourses of the nation, mobilize nationalist/patriotic discourses, and identify and practice the nation.

  • Millei, Z., and R. Imre, eds. Childhood and Nation: Interdisciplinary Engagements. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

    This book offers multidisciplinary entry points to investigate the historical and contemporary entanglements of nation and childhood in their continuous co-construction and representations, and in the lives of children. It addresses the broader idea of the nation and how its plural form as various national myths, representations, nation-forming projects, and their resistances function, and how subject formation in bordered and de-bordered transnationalisms are experienced in relevant childhoods.

  • Millei, Z., and R. Imre, eds. “Special Section: Children and Nationalism.” Children’s Geographies 19.5 (2021).

    This collection explores everyday nationhood in children’s everyday life and in their social practice as they talk about, give meaning to, accomplish, subvert, express emotions, and embody the nation through routine activities. It also considers childhood as a method for researching everyday nationalism.

  • Stephens, S., ed. Special Issue: Children and Nationalism. Childhood 4.1 (1997).

    This special issue has not only been the initiator of research in childhood and nation, specifically considering the modern constructions of gender and nation, but also an important contribution to the emerging field of childhood studies during the 1990s. Articles in the special issue discuss how certain constructions of childhood have been shaped by, contested, or legitimated by constructions of nation from a variety of world regions.

  • Swain, Shurlee, and Margot Hillel. Child, Nation, Race and Empire: Child Rescue Discourse, England, Canada and Australia, 1850–1915. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2010.

    The book links the construction and transmission of 19th-century British child rescue ideology to the nation and empire. Child at risk came to be reconstituted as central to the survival of nation, race, and empire.

  • Tröhler, Daniel, ed. Special Issue: Nation-State, Education and the Fabrication of National-Minded Citizens. Croatian Journal of Education 22.6 (2020).

    This special issue explores nationalism, and banal and everyday nationalism, in modern education institutions, strategies, and practices that reproduce the nation discursively, culturally as identity and belonging, and through notions of “nation as second nature,” “doing nation,” and “national literacies.”

  • Tröhler, Daniel, Nelli Piattovea, and William F. Pinar, eds. World Yearbook of Education 2022: Education, Schooling and the Global Universalization of Nationalism. London: Routledge, 2022.

    This collection of case studies from several countries offers an overview of how institutional cultures in education re/produce the nation, national identity, and nationalism. The book focuses on nation-state development and education intertwined with historical and economic processes, the global spread and national take-up of hegemonic forms of instruction and governing tools, and how catchwords such as citizenship discourses, humanitarianism, and internationalism function in national policies.

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