Haircuts by Children and Other Evidence for a New Social Contract

“O’Donnell’s consideration of how a community formed around a project is empowered through their own activity and supported to take over the project themselves, seems both simple and quite revolutionary.”

Rachel Dobbs, Reflections of Social Making Symposium

O’Donnell has been collaborating with children for years through his company, Mammalian Diving Reflex; their most well-known piece, Haircuts by Children (exactly what it sounds like) has been performed internationally in 41 cities and counting. His Succession Model of Youth Labour Engagement (SMYLE) has been adapted and implemented in London with the London International Festival of Theatre and in Germany with the Rurhtriennale festival.

O’Donnell proposes that working with children in the cultural industries in a manner that maintains a large space for their participation can be understood as a pilot for a vision of a very different role for young people in the world – one that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child considers a ‘new social contract.’

Haircuts by Children, and Other Evidence for a New Social Contract is a practical proposal for the inclusion of children in as many realms as possible, not only as an expression of their rights, but as a way to intervene in the world and to disrupt the stark economic inequalities perpetuated by the status quo. Deeply practical and wildly whimsical, Haircuts by Children might actually make total sense.

Haircuts by Children

“This is one of the most significant books ab out children I have read in years. Fantastic.”
Amy Fusselman, author of Savage Park

“This tremendous, important book highlights the negative effects of our current concept of childhood on all aspects of society. Darren throws down the gauntlet to the cultural sector as being the natural arean to start the revolution that could radically change our lives for the better.”
Susan Sheddan, Tate Learning

“I try to foster a climate in which people can really just do what they want,” O’Donnell says. “I have as much of a veto as anyone, but certainly no more.” As much as anyone, but certainly no more. That simple valuation describes an ideal of freedom and equity in a civil society.”
Robert Everett-Green, The Globe and Mail

“The approaches of performances like those of O’Donnell change the delineations between art and education by changing conceptualisations of art and theatre that do not see themselves as connected to skills which you can just and only learn at actors’ academies.”
Children as Experts by Geesche Wartemann from Youth and Performance: Perceptions of the Contemporary Child


What it means to be a child, and what the capacities of a child are understood to be, are not historically fixed values. Our current social order, for the most part, views children as becoming and not being. Children, we tend to believe, are moving toward a destination: adulthood. They are constituted in opposition to adulthood, and considered to be in a state of preparation for taking on life’s ‘real’ responsibilities once they are old enough, when they reach an age that is locked in law. However, it is possible to conceive of young people not as headed toward a more perfected state, but as who they are right now, a view that prioritizes the young person’s being at this moment over that of the adult they may eventually become. Accepting that their being is as legitimate as anyone else’s would, ultimately, require recognizing that they do have a real stake in all discussions affecting them—and also that most issues really do affect them.

Feminist legal scholar Martha Albertson Fineman points out that prevailing political and legal theories assume that the universal or typical human is autonomous, self-sufficient, rational, and competent. It is this idea of the typical human for which laws are written—laws that, for the most part, do not apply to children, who are generally not legally responsible for their actions. Adulthood produces the category of childhood; the idea of the autonomy of adults makes no sense without the lack of autonomy implied in the idea of children. We’ve seen the shape of that universal subject change, however gradually or imperfectly, to accommodate greater rights for women, racialized people, and, increasingly, trans and other gender-variant folks. And we can likewise anticipate—if not actively work toward—the dissolution of the strict binary that is adult and child.

The first step is to stop assigning essential and unchanging qualities to either adults or children. Every adult and every child has the capacities and abilities they have: some adults are more childlike than others, some require the same care that a baby requires for their entire lives, and some children are, at a young age, resilient, rational, and independent. Practically speaking, the best, safest approach to breaking down this binary may be to err on the side of caution and assume that adults, as commonly understood, simply do not exist.