The Goal

Loris Malaguzzi commonly contrasts his image of the ‘rich’ child – capable, competent, curious, most in need of recognition of their rights – with his image of the ‘poor’ child – incomplete, deficient, vulnerable, most in need of protection. In much of the literature on children, the great distinction is between child-rearing practices that are more focused on authority, discipline, and obedience (variously called ‘authoritarian’ or, strangely, ‘collectivist’) and practices that are less so (variously called ‘permissive’ or ‘individualist’). Whatever we may think of these distinctions, or where we may place ourselves along a scale running between them, each of these can be called a ‘dimension’ along which our images of children and childhood vary. The goal of this project is to extract as complete a set as possible of these dimensions.

As a starting point, one obvious difference in what we mean by ‘child’ is that sometimes we mean ‘child’ as distinct from ‘adult’ – sometimes also as distinct from ‘youth’ – while other times we mean ‘child’ as distinct from ‘parent’. It is the child as not-adult to which we connect the notion of ‘childhood’. As offspring, however, the concept ‘adult child’ is not an oxymoron. You are still the child of your parents no matter how old you may be, even if you have children (or grandchildren!) yourself. We use ‘child’ in both ways yet, while they overlap, they aren’t the same.

As not-adult, the child is loosely defined by age, but only loosely. What ages do we have in mind when we talk about ‘children’ and ‘childhood’? In many policy contexts we talk about children as being people between ‘zero’ and some other age – 4, 6, 12, 18, … but neither of those ends is unambiguous or uncontroversial. So, what do you think?

When does childhood begin?
sometime earlier?
2nd trimester?
3rd trimester?
sometime later? (3 months? 5 years?)
When does childhood end?
when can walk, talk, eat solid food?
when can do chores?
when school starts?
when puberty starts?

on leaving home?

when has home, job, spouse, maybe even child of their own?

Once we pick an age, then other considerations open up. As examples, consider the following possibilities:

Children are …
a net benefit to their parentsa net cost to their parents
a net benefit to society/the worlda net cost to society/the world
malleable, products of their environmentsfixed at birth, products of their heredity
each on a unique developmental trajectoryall on a developmental trajectory with fixed stages
born good, and only learn wickednessborn wicked, and must learn goodness (if they can)
capable, competent, curiousdeficient, vulnerable
not fundamentally different from adults in desires and intentionsfundamentally different from adults in desires and intentions
not fundamentally different from one anotherfundamentally different from one another, e.g., by gender or race, etc.
Raising/educating children requires …
less discipline/obediencemore discipline/obedience
“a village”“a family”
recognition of cultural and historical differencesimposition of cultural uniformity
Some possible dimensions of difference in our images of children and childhood

These almost certainly aren’t all the relevant dimensions and some may not actually be particularly good characterizations of how we think about children and childhood. But they are, on general knowledge, some ways that we might do so.

It’s also worth noting that, just with these 11 dimensions, the number of images of children we get (the number of sectors we could divide the semantic space of childhood into) is 211 or 2048. “Hundreds” of images, indeed.