A Note From Noah

Continuing from last week, this Note explores the notion of adult imperialism, or how adults extend control into children’s lives: Why does this happen? How does it happen? What happens when children resist?

My use of “imperialism” in this sense comes from scholars of the cultural and historical nature of child development, who propose that the “imperial practices of adults” are foisted upon “the native practices of children” (excerpted chapter with these phrases here; whole book here).

“Imperialism” and “native practices” suggests an indigenous, tribal nature to childhood, displayed as a foreign culture to us adults. You see this readily in your child’s play patterns – three year olds talking rapid-fire and breathlessly about superheroes, four year olds immersed in imaginative, dramatic play, five year olds so concerned about the rules of a made-up game that they barely leave time to play the actual game. You also see it in the non-adult habits our children have: eating mac and cheese with their fingers, picking their nose, carrying a lovey, babbling in their own language, and on and on.

Adults have turned both of these native practices – creative peer play as well as non-adult habits –into areas of regulation and control. In progressive, child-centered settings like our nursery school, we strive to provide ample time for free, imaginative, peer play.  Yet the fact that free play is one part of the child’s schedule reminds us of how stringently we regulate the child’s day, indeed, their entire life. And we all, as teachers and parents, see the non-adult habits of children as in need of intervention and correction (“Use a fork”, “Here’s a tissue”, “Leave your lovey in your cubby”, “Use your words so I can understand you”).

The regulation of childhood in this fashion began about a century ago, when Western scholars and scientists first started to rigorously study children (this was termed, succinctly, the “child study movement” and flourished at the turn of the 20th century). This began by simple observation of children in infancy, and soon proceeded to psychological and developmental testing of children. Those observations and tests led to the creation of “norms” for child development, which in turn led to the “invention” of the child-as-we-know-it, which rests on three foundational premises (highlighted in this wonderfully intriguing chapter):  “Child psychologists have invented different children”; “different human cultures have invented different children”; “child psychology, like the child, is a cultural invention.” In short order, those invented psychological and developmental norms had direct impact on the design of the social (human interactions) and physical (schools, homes, playgrounds) environments which children inhabit.

Continuing their thoughts on imperialism, the authors linked above wrote further, “an important aspect of the imperial practices of adults is that they create institutions to back up their narratives, which in turn implicates the physical and social environments of childhood.” We believe children need correction, so we create institutions to correct them – subliminally denying the opportunity for the child to say, show, or express competencies which deny or reject adult imperialism. Erica Burman (in an appropriately titled book, “Deconstructing Developmental Psychology”) furthers this argument when she writes, “the production and regulation of children extended beyond testing environments to the settings by which children were cared for and instructed.” The testing environments of the early childhood study movement wound up, intentionally or not, creating regulated environments that soon encompassed nearly all aspects of early childhood.

Adults came to control, rather than observe, the native practices of children.

However – and this is the exciting part as an educator – children are, as it turns out, not easily submissive! Children devise ingenious methods of resistance, persistently rejecting our perceived power over them.

The subjugation of indigenous practices to imperial powers is never neat and simple – yet we try to make it so by denying even children the right to resist. We gloss over their capacity to reject our adult-culture and instead assume they are tired, hungry, cranky – or all three. Rarely do we actually pause and recognize in our child, “Oh, wow – you really want to do this differently than I do. I’d love to learn about your way of doing this.”

This is so ubiquitous that we may even have a hard time recognizing it. This happens when we dress our children in the morning, when we ask them to eat their dinner, when we hoist them into strollers over their protestation to walk, when we give them two forced choices yet they have a different idea, when they use an object in a peculiar, novel way, indeed, just about anytime they disagree with your intention in an interaction. We deny children the opportunity to express new, divergent, non-adult ideas, and instead seek to conform them to our adult-practice – we far too-often see their resistance as disobedience rather than an expression of “native practices”.

In my work with the 2.5 year old child for my dissertation research, one afternoon we were playing together in her living room. She asked me to move a bit away, so we could “play catch”. She gave me a ball, and I figured we were set – I know how to play catch – or so I thought. She proceeded to get another ball for herself, and instructed me to throw mine towards her at the same time as she threw hers towards me. Rather than catch her ball (my adult-practice), she instructed me to instead chase after my own as she did the same. Once we reclaimed our balls, we started all over again.

These small, seemingly mundane moments are good opportunities for parents to explore the reaches of imperialism, because they are “low stakes” – they are not about getting somewhere on time or taking physical care of our bodies. As a parent, I very likely would have told the child, “When we play catch, I throw and you catch; then you throw and I catch” – emphasizing both “catch” as a vocabulary word and “catch” as a set of codified rules of behavior. Instead, as a researcher, I said, “I’d love to learn about catch from you” and proceeded to learn her native practice of catch.

Last weekend, in California child-free with Shira for a friend’s wedding, we were seated for hotel brunch with friends – and their 2.5 year old. All seated around the table, the adults talked and the child played with her water glass, gently moving ice cubes from the glass to her bowl, and then back again, as she marveled at their slipperiness. I moved my glass next to hers so she could expand her experiments. While she was engaged with the melting ice, her parents were making plans for what to do after brunch – go back to hotel room with dad or run errands with mom. They asked her which of these options she wanted to do. The child looked at her parents, looked at me, looked at her ice – and then resumed playing with the ice. With my research hat on, her expression was clear as day – “This is what I want to do. Leave your imperialism away from my native practices. I’m good – I’ll just keep playing with this ice, that’s enough for me.” (Yes, I have a hard time putting away my investigations into childhood even when my own are 3,000 miles away!)

In both of these situations, we can begin to see the child’s agency, if we only look for it – their subtle resistance to adult intervention and correction.

What are we to do with concepts like native practices, agentive children, and resistance to imperialism?

Anna Stetsenko, renowned scholar and researcher, and academic mentor of mine (she is a longstanding professor at CUNY), writes in her most recent book that if we want to “emphasize the role of the learners’ own agency, stance, and voice”, then, “the task of education is to work on developing learners’ own agency by providing them with access to the tools that afford such agency.” Stetsenko continues, “If agency is acknowledged as a continuous work in progress and an evolving struggle for a unique contribution to a world shared with others, then recognizing our incompleteness and the need for us all to learn and become more fully agentive, throughout the life span and together with others, opens up possibilities for a pedagogical stance without connotations of deficiency or inferiority in need of correction.”

This can begin to turn us away from the paradigm in which adults are “right” and children are deficient – and therefore in need of correction – and instead towards relationships with children in which we seek to augment and support their agency. This means finding some moments – not every moment, not every interaction – in which we can learn from our child instead of control them. These moments are readily available if we begin to look for them – when playing with your child, position yourself to learn what he is doing rather than offering a more advanced (adult) version or challenge. When you are not in a rush (rare, I know!), slow down and rather than present your child with two choices just observe what they are already doing.

In our classroom, this plays out as we seek to find ever-increasing ways to respect the child’s agency. In recent years, our classrooms have begun to have children create their own job charts several weeks into the school year, rather than present them, fully-formed, on Day One. This gives children a chance to wrestle with, and answer, meaningful questions from within their own native practices: What jobs need to get done in our classroom? How can we devise a fair way to assign these jobs? Likewise, the agency of the child is felt in the development of our emergent curriculum. Children see their own ideas – about firestations, train tracks, grocery lists, and more – turn into full-fledged class-wide projects. Per Stetsenko’s writing, this gives our students “access to the tools that afford such agency.”

I believe that our children are better served if we can determine where control is needed (and of course there are many biological areas where children need us), and where it has been needlessly extended. Our children are powerful creatures, agentive and expressive in their own rights. When we deny them the capacity to offer new ideas and insights, to meaningfully contribute to the creation of their day and their environment, we dwarf a part of what it means to be human.

So, I invite you to explore this with your children. Where are you in power and need to be, and where are you in power instinctively, without meaning to be? Where can you observe rather than control? And, significantly, what happens when you start observing more than controlling?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this and feedback on how this feels in your family.

Shabbat shalom,