Would you let a 10-year-old cut your hair? Artist argues we should give kids more control

Theatre artist Darren O'Donnell says it's time to break down our 'adultitarian' society and take children and their abilities more seriously.

'There are things that they know about the world that we've forgotten,' artist says of children

After creating a show that makes adults hand control to children, artist Darren O'Donnell believes kids should be more involved in our social and political lives. (Tim Mitchell)
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Originally published on April 3, 2018.

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Handing a child some scissors and free rein over your hair might seem like a strange — and possibly alarming idea — but it has led one artist to believe we need to take children more seriously.

In Haircuts By Children, artist Darren O'Donnell gives 10-year-olds some basic instruction on cutting technique. He then gives them control of a salon, and adults sign up for their styling services.

"They're good enough to be sometimes salon quality, but then sometimes they're just ridiculous."

O'Donnell, and his company Mammalian Diving Reflex, have taken the show all over the world over the past 12 years.

It's a simple concept — and revels in being a bit of a silly one —  but the Toronto artist has a serious point, too.

"It's about this relationship between adults and children and the complete flip of this hierarchy in a really decisive and shocking way," he says.

"It's just taking them seriously and not talking down to them — and understanding that their intelligence is as valid as anybody else's. There are things that they know about the world that we've forgotten."

In his book, Haircuts by Children and Other Evidence for a New Social Contract, O'Donnell argues that we need to take children more seriously — and maybe ourselves a little less so. O'Donnell is not a parent and says he doesn't want children of his own. But he manages to create a special rapport with young people.

He makes the case that our society is "adultitarian," and children are excluded from too many aspects of social and political life. 

In his new book, Darren O'Donnell, left, argues we need to break down the binary categories of adult and child. (Submitted by Darren O'Donnell; Mammalian Diving Reflex)

"There's a lot of matters that affect them — the healthcare system, the education system, the entertainment industry, the entire internet."

The high school students fighting for more gun control in the United States are a great example of the kind of contribution young people can make, he says.

"Because they're young people, they are able to galvanize a different kind of apolitical response," says O'Donnell. "I think that they're able to rise a little bit above a partisan discussion."

He says it seems like it might be the start of a different kind of understanding of the role they can play as young people.

(Kelly O'Brien)
The teenager was thrilled to see something she helped create in a show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. 1:45

But O'Donnell isn't arguing that we should totally hand the reins over to minors, but that we should dissolve the binary of adult and child. And he argues that the category we need to get rid of is the adult one.

O'Donnell argues that we should learn to embrace our own vulnerability by following the example of children. (Tim Mitchell)

"The ideal person in the Western political philosophy, the liberal subject, is somebody who is competent, who brings their labour to the market, who exchanges that rationally," he says.

But that's not what people are, he argues. People are vulnerable, and at any time could become ill, or disabled or unable to work.

"I think that children, the child, is actually much more of a universal subject," he says.

"It's the adult side of the equation that we need to get rid of and just admit that we're all vulnerable."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Julie Crysler.