Care, surveillance & the monitoring of childhood

“Naughty, romping girls and boys tear their clothes and make a noise…”

– Hoffmann’s (1845) Der Struwwelpeter

As a child I was deeply fascinated by the old German book written by Heinrich Hoffmann (1845): Der Struwwelpeter. Although this is a rather old book, most libraries in Italy had a copy of it in their children’s section.

During my childhood, I found the book scary yet, in some way, also perversely fascinating and I would use any occasion I had to pick it up from a shelf and go through its pages.

My parents never bought it and they probably had a point, considering the number of nightmares that were fuelled by its vivid graphics, especially The story of little suck-a-thumb.

In most of these stories, children got punished for misbehaving, not listening to adults, for playing with things they shouldn’t play with, and/or ‘inappropriately’ enjoying their bodies. Ultimately, these unruly children always regretted not having listened to adults’ advices.  

How do children get talked about in the patent archive

Infant and youth surveillance is a complex topic, entangled with wider discourses of health, safety, age, gender, class, and race. Not all children are monitored in the same way, and the way in which they are looked after by parents, schools, governments, etc. ranges from practices of care to quasi-dystopian surveillance.

Over the past two centuries[1], children have been increasingly seen as vulnerable and in need of protection. Today, while caregivers are asked to be constantly vigilant, states progressively step in to regulate, control, restrain and/or ‘protect’ children where guardians seem unable to do so. Caregivers’ fears are often magnified, exploited, and their potential ‘neglect’ is subjected to public shaming and in some cases even arrest and imprisonment (McCarren, 2015; Schmidt, 2014; Zaske, 2018).

When I began researching words such as ‘identity’ and ‘monitoring’ in our POP dataset, I quickly realized that many of these inventions were concerned with monitoring infants and children. A quick search across the dataset reported more than 7,000 files containing either the words baby, toddler, child and the like [2]. Of these, more than 400 were concerned with matters of control, monitoring, training and/or surveillance.  

I started to wonder: what are the reasons behind inventors’ interest in patenting so many of these particular children’s garments? How do children get talked about in the patent archive? Are these inventions blurring care with surveillance? Are these patents preventing children from ever getting into trouble, and if so, what does this mean not only for children but for society as a whole? 

In what ways do inventions for children blur care and surveillance?

Children’s ‘healthy development’ – both physical and mental – has been a primary concern for over two-hundred years. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these preoccupations belonged almost exclusively to middle- and upper-class families, the sole ones who could really afford these worries. Children raised in these families were clothed with inventions which aimed at ensure their safety and protection. 



With this Baby-Exercising Corset: ‘the child [could] be readily supported in an erect position, and allowed to exercise in the house, yard, or garden, without any danger of hurting itself, soiling its clothes, or wearying its mother or attendant.’ (The invisible labour of care-givers is explored in further blog posts).



The child must be kept safe while simultaneously making sure that others – people, things, and the space in which s/he walks – are also protected. Children are both ‘seen as potential victims and vulnerable creatures in need of protection from evil outsiders (and insiders)’ but also ‘society […] has to be protected from bad seeds and the incompetent and immature young’ (Gary & Steeves, 2010: 217).   

1976 BABY GARMENT (Pat. US3997921A) 

This Baby Garment unambiguously understands children’s mobility as a matter of ‘control’. The aspect of care, present in the above corset (almost) completely disappears. Here, walking in ‘a busy street’ or ‘attempting to hold a child still’ is described as a ‘tug-of-war’ where an uncomplying child may be injured because ‘excessively forced or pulled’ by the adult s/he is walking with.

The inventor proposes that the ‘baby garment includes ‘a handle which may be easily and conveniently grasped by a parent or adult to control the child either in movement or to hold the child still’ – which the inventor adds, is less ‘unsightly’ than previous harnesses.  


In this more recent patent, before being able to engage with surveillance devices, infants are clothed in monitoring technologies which increasingly speak in their place.


1994 Alarm garment for children kick-off quilt (Pat. CN2184331Y)

Inventions like this with ‘an electronic alarm circuit’ promptly warn parents ‘when the child’s body temperature drops to a certain value’. It notifies parents even before the child gets cold. The toddler has no need to voice her/his needs for attention, warmth, and care – the garment will do it for them! 

There are exceptions. Rather that protecting children and infants from ever-present, ever-surrounding threats – from catching colds to falling down – some inventors also thought about equipping young people to be in control, enabling them to freely move and play around public spaces.  



In this patent, the inventor acknowledges that ‘children are lively and active, and are easily scratched and injured in a colliding mode during playing’.

Instead of shielding the child from danger, constricting her/his body, or avoiding altogether the possibility of being and moving outside, the inventor equips the child with a ‘bowknot type first-aid packet’. Appearing as a normal decorative bow, the first-aid/bow ‘when children fall down or scratch carelessly […] can be opened, and the inside the first-aid packet can be taken out for timely aid’. 

This invention potentially enables children to develop independently a sense of self, security and control while moving in those spaces from which they have been increasingly pushed out from (Cockburn, 2013; Billett 2014). They are equipped with the tools to care for themselves and others. This is unusual. Like many women, racialised minorities, disabled people and other marginalised groups before them, children have more often been viewed as incomplete and irrational beings which need protection (and thus often authoritarian and invasive control) from an adult-other who is in turn seen as invariably more capable.

This way of conceptualising children is not only oppressive towards youth, but blurs the lines between surveillance and care.

Are these clothing patents preventing children from ever getting into trouble….

Of course, not all control is negative. Guidance and monitoring while growing-up are necessary, but this can be achieved by enabling children to think, act, and speak for themselves rather than doing it in their place. If control is important, ‘making trouble’ is equally fundamental. As Butler writes in her 1990 preface to Gender Trouble: 

To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it. 

This is only the beginning of my investigations and it is a big complicated area of research. But already I am interested in the contradictions and complexities at play in the patent archive that reflect and complicate discourses around childhood, care and surveillance.

I am curious to explore alternative ways of thinking of children beyond that of a ‘projective’ way – as the adults and citizens of the future. Might there be ways of asking them how we can return to their ideas, to their ability to make/get into trouble, with the aim of challenging the normative opinions on what a child is.  


Billett, P. 2014. Youth Social Capital, Place and Space. In: Westwood J., Larkins C., Moxon D., &  Thomas N., Eds. 2014. Participation, Citizenship and Intergenerational Relations in Children and Young People’s Lives. Palgrave Macmillan, p. 71-81

Butler, J. 2006. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge Classics.

Cockburn, T.  2013. Rethinking Children’s Citizenship. Palgrave Macmillan.

Higonnet, A. & Albinson, C. 1997. Clothing the Child’s Body. Fashion Theory 1(2):119-143. DOI: 10.2752/136270497779592093  

Hoffmann, H. 1090. The English Struwwelpeter, or, Pretty stories and funny pictures. Routledge & K. Paul. Accessed at 

McCarren, A. 2015. Parents in trouble again for letting kids walk alone. USA Today. Accessed at 

Marx, G. & Valerie, S. 2010. From the Beginning: Children as Subjects and Agents of Surveillance. Surveillance & Society,(3/4): 192-230. 

Schmidt, C. 2014. Florida mom arrested after letting 7-years-old walk to the park alone. CNN. Accessed at 

Steeves, V. & Jones, O. 2010. Editorial: Surveillance and ChildrenSurveillance & Society, 7 (3/4): 187-191. 

Zaske, S. 2018. I raised my American children in Berlin — and I was floored by the differences between parenting in the US and Germany. Business Insider. Accessed at 



Pat. US149692A. Catharine Tardy, State of New Jersey, USA, ‘Baby-exercising corset’, 14 April 1874. Accessed at the EPO 

Pat. US3997921A. William E. Knight, State of Maryland, USA, ‘Baby Garment’, 21 December 1976. Accessed at the EPO 

Pat. CN2184331Y. Wang Changrong, China, ‘Alarm garment for children kick-off quilt’, 07 December, 1994. Accessed at the EPO 

Pat. CN202873842U. Xiying Zhang and Lei Shen, China, ‘Child clothes provided with first-aid packet’, 17 April 2013.Accessed at the EPO 



1. For more on the changes in the history of childhood during this period check out Tom Cockburn’s (2013) Rethinking Children’s Citizenship, Chapter 3 

2. For more research clothing and the construction of children/childhood check out Anne Higonnet & Cassi Albinson (1997)

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