This article argues that street children studies (SCS) has reduced its central concept to a discursive construct, and the young street people themselves to capable ‘agents’. One consequence is that street children are not recognized as distinct intergenerational groupings in society. The traditional history of SCS as saga of science elides its positionality as activist critique. This dominant paradigm emerges as overarching belief structure and storytelling tradition, in which the presentation of correct and useful science is crucial. Taking the activist critique as a variant of post-development theory, this article traces different forms of discursive determinism, deconstructionism and populism. Using an iconic text as test case, the article reviews in detail the deconstructionist and populist arguments regarding the complexities, politics and images of street children. Opportunities to think sociologically are identified throughout. Discursive determinism relates to the narrow focus on childhood; intergenerational approaches help to go beyond discourse and competence.