The Point

Why should you care about the image or images that you, or I, or anyone holds of children and childhood? Simple answer: Because they do, in fact, have something to do with how we behave.

Better answer: Beliefs don’t determine behaviour in some simple, entirely deterministic way. Then again, our images of children aren’t all exactly ‘beliefs’. Images of children are built into our subconsciousness. When I say ‘child’, what age is the person you see in your head? what race? what gender? what are they wearing? what are they doing? Images of children are built into our institutions. We have laws against child labour and sex with children, laws that mandate providing them with the ‘necessaries of life’, and laws that permit hitting them. We prosecute children’s wrong-doing under different laws than we prosecute adults. We regulate child care based on children’s ages. We make school mandatory. We have minimum ages to drink, smoke tobacco or cannabis, drive, vote, or join the military. And so on.

Children are people who all of us, no matter our age, come into contact with. What we think about children, what background assumptions we have about children, play a role in how we handle those interactions – what we think is necessary, possible, permissible and expected in such cases. Crucially, children are people for whom we have taken upon ourselves, as adults, the right to determine policy. Children have no say in laws about child care, school, driving, working, or what have you. Leaving aside laws, the “so long as you live under my roof” rule is still the rule in most, if perhaps not all, households. So, what we think doesn’t just shape our momentary, situational interactions. It shapes children’s worlds, without their consent.

Loris Malaguzzi argued that our images of children are “where teaching begins“, since he was an educator and was speaking to educators. But our images of children are also where parenting begins. Where public policy begins. Where policy and program evaluation begin.

My own core interest is in public policy and evaluation. I want to be able to analyze institutions – the policies and programs they establish, the performance of those policies and programs (whether they ‘work’), how equitable and inclusive those policies, programs, and systems are. Doing that starts with being able to identify the images of children and childhood they assume and enact. And, that’s where the absence of a standard classification of such images starts to bite.

Your own interest may come from being an educator, or a parent, or simply an interested member of the public. My hope is that a classification of this sort will help you, too. You can find all kinds of things about ‘the image of the child’ online, largely from a Reggio perspective. But you are very unlikely to find anything that would help you figure out what image or images you actually hold. You are much more likely to find what I call ‘piety’: statements about what image you should hold and about how important it is, how wonderful it is, that this or that person, service, or system has that much-desired image as their mission statement. I don’t say that to be critical of the desire. I, too, endorse the kind of image of children that Loris Malaguzzi professed. What I’m not convinced by is that any of us, myself very much included, actually achieve that image, actually enact it, on a day-to-day basis, personally, professionally, institutionally, systematically. So, there’s a real question, for all of us: what are the images of childhood that we do enact? And, if we don’t like them, what are we prepared to do about it, individually, in our own lives, and together, as citizens?