“See? My feet touch the ground now!”
A PreK student of ours called me over this week, proud to point out that her feet now rest comfortably on the ground when seated in a chair. It got me thinking.
This event that we’re going through, the conclusion of a year and the dissolution of a community which has profoundly impacted our children and ourselves, is tricky to navigate. The end of the year impacts both adults and children simultaneously; this leaves us, as parents and teachers, in the uncomfortable position of having an exogenous perspective on our child’s end-of-year transitions.
We experience our own very personal emotions around these transitions; yet we are ethnographers studying a foreign culture when it comes to truly understanding the child’s experience of her own transition. We can study it, we can track it, we can observe it; yet ultimately, what we are left with is our observation and interpretation of someone else’s experience. As close as we are with our child or student, as intimate as the relationship is, the adult perspective of the child’s experience is ultimately an etic one. I immediately and instinctively placed the child’s statement that “My feet touch the ground now!” into a path of growth, graduation, and readiness-for-kindergarten. But is that the same narrative she would have placed it within?
I believe it is problematic when we, as adults, overlay our perspective of the experience onto the child. We see ourselves in our children; we project our perspectives and emotions onto them. There is something natural, parental, and inescapable about this emotional projection. And yet, we compromise the child’s identity, voice, and agency when we presume that she experiences life events the same way we do. Within our own emotional turbulence, I believe we must find the capacity to seek out and understand how the child sees her own transition. Children are powerful authors of their own life script. I find that children, and adults, benefit when we listen to their story instead of read them our own. Where would the PreK student have placed her statement of “My feet touch the ground now!” in her own life story? What part of her autobiography would it occupy?
Pernille Hviid, a child development researcher at the University of Denmark, is part of a growing field which seeks to recognize and restore the child’s voice and perspective on her own development. She conducted a series of interviews with young children on this topic – “the child’s experience of her own life” – and found that the child’s perspective on school transitions is radically different than adults’.
As adults, we generally tend to believe that growth, maturation, and development grow steadily and teleologically forward. If we were to plot this on a graph, with Time on the X axis and Growth on the Y axis, the adult perspective would typically see a steady climb from the bottom left to the upper right. Some of our graphs might show linear growth, some exponential, and some step-like plateaus; but we generally assume that life moves in a forward, and upward, direction. We see that our child goes from the bassinette to the crib to the toddler bed to the big kid bed; from infancy to nursery to kindergarten; from sitting to crawling to walking. Upward, and onward!
Yet, when Hviid asked children to illustrate, describe, and map their life in a variety of forms, she found something quite different. Hviid found that children feel big at the end of the year and then small all over again at the beginning of the year. The child’s graph of her own life more often looks like a zig-zag up-down pattern, a series of peaks and valleys: a sharp rise from the beginning of the school year to the end, and then a plummeting cliff bringing them back down. The plots on the X axis march on with time while the Y axis plots are like chutes and ladders, up and down and back again.
Hviid interviewed “Michael” about his transition from nursery to kindergarten, several years after the fact. Michael said, “You are big and small, big and small. Last year in nursery, you are big, right? Then you get very small in kindergarten. Then you are big the last year in kindergarten. And then you are really small in school. So, you are big and small, big and small, big and small.” Hviid continues, “The data twisted central and traditional understandings of human development. To the researcher’s surprise, no child talked about development as a process where they felt bigger and bigger. They described a process where they got bigger and smaller and bigger and smaller.”
And so, our PreK student whose feet now touch the ground finds herself at the top of the peak, yet ready to slide down and begin again. Her feet have in fact long been on the ground – from tummy time to sitting upright to cruising and finally to walking, which must feel very “big” for a toddler. Yet entering nursery school three years ago, she found herself “small” again as she sat in chairs that despite their stature were outsized for her. Finally, at the end of her three years in nursery school, her feet are back where they were as a toddler: on the ground. She is big; she has grown into this place. And yet she is also ready to begin again: her chair next year in kindergarten will no doubt be taller than her nursery chair and she will again be in the youngest grade in the school. She will once again find herself small, waiting to catch up to the big people and furniture of elementary school. And in the distant future, dare I say, right after a very big high school graduation, she will find herself a small freshman in a big college campus. Big and small, big and small.
What does all of this mean?
It means that a child very likely understands the transition out of school in a very different way than her parent does. It means that the child’s view is not wrong, humorous, deficient, or immature; rather, it is distinct, important, and illuminative. It means that we would be wise to sit and listen, in earnest, to our child’s thoughts about her own life experiences, including this transition. And we know that sitting and listening to a young child means patience, often silent patience, until the child deems it appropriate to share or express her thoughts. We might not hear her voice on this transition until later in the summer, or even years from now. The child speaks her mind when she is ready, not when we are.
It means that our children will always return to us as small, just when we thought they were so big. Helping a child learn to share shovels in the sandbox transitions into helping her navigate the social mores of elementary school recess; packing her lunch for day camp becomes packing her luggage for overnight camp; pushing her stroller to nursery school becomes driving her to college. The seasons, they go round and round. Just as assuredly as your shoulder will always be there for her to cry on, so too will she always need you in those moments of being small in a big world.
It means that growing big and leaving nursery school really means another chance to become small again.
With love and appreciation,