When were you a child? When did it end? Where you very different then from the way you are now? Am I the only one who asks themselves these questions?
Reading blogs and books about child rearing, they all seem to depart from a very clear-cut definition of what a child is. It has a certain age; it is capable of doing certain things. If not, it is behind in its development. If it can do more, it’s ahead. Ahead is good. Being ahead wins the race. Yet I don’t remember my childhood as a race at all. Mine was full of long days of nothing planned and all the time in the world to discover and play. I remember my friends and I having a stomach ache after eating kilos of grapes that grew in our garden, because our dolls could not get enough of them. I remember walking our rabbit across the street to the playground, on a cat leash. How he jumped in my arms when a German Shepherd came running from the other side of the field. I remember my sister and I making friends at the camping, even though we didn’t have any language in common with the local French children. Before my parents had managed to set up the tent, we were playing hide and seek.
What makes childhood so different from adulthood? I see a lot of similarities. I still love making new friends and playing with animals. My partner and I have been discussing getting a dog for ages. And I have this idea that I really want chickens. I just love how they move and the sounds they make. Of course, the eggs are a nice bonus too. I don’t tend to overeat on grapes specifically anymore, but at times I still bite of more than I can chew. So when did my childhood end? And what ended when it did?
Interested in understanding a bit more about different perspectives of what childhood is, I decided to join a project. At the time, I was an anthropology student at the University of Manchester. We were going to let 10-year-olds and their parents to choose their favourite childhood object and discuss why they chose this, to see what we could learn from that.
One child, let’s call him Jack, chose his pirate doll. He explained he loved playing with it. He’d make up stories and play them out with the pirate and a stuffed bear. Playing with this doll made him feel happy and proud because it was one of a kind: His grandmother had made it. When his mother was a little girl, she had played with it too. While playing with it he felt connected to his mother and grandmother for this reason. He also liked playing with it in his room, when he wanted a little time for himself.
Another boy, Cole, choose his laptop. He used his laptop to make stop motion films, by taking pictures with the webcam of his Lego. Being creative runs in the family, he said. His grandfather was a painter and both his parents were graphic designers. He loved being creative, just like them.
There were many more stories like this. What I found most striking in the stories is that all children and parents spoke about their family and their relationships within the family. Being connected to the generations before them seemed to be important to them. It was part of their play. It gave them joy. On a surface level their play may seem to be connected only to the present, but if you look closely, they express that they think of themselves as beings with a history that reached beyond their age. They even project themselves into the future, for example into becoming ‘just like my parents’. Whereas before I would have considered this awareness of past and future a trait of maturity, I learned that children can be very much aware of it and use it in how they play. So how do children differ from adults?
When we emphasise the differences between adults and children we often refer to a difference in capacity. We define children as ‘learners’ and adults as ‘knowledgeable’. Yet adults are also constantly learning new things, whether they are useful things or not.
My first boss always made each team member describe their ‘learning edge’. It’s a very useful exercise. First you have to look over your shoulder to the road you travelled and describe what you learned along the way. We often learned a whole lot more than we realised. Sometimes we learned things we’d like to unlearn. Looking at the horizon, we may see the place we’d like to go to. Down at your feet, you find yourself at an edge. Between you and your goal a gap that seems to wide to jump. If you are actively trying to overcome the knowledge gap that separates you from your goal, you find yourself on your learning edge. A new born baby that is learning to hold her head up by herself is on her learning edge. At the same time the baby is capable: it can eat and process milk, move parts of its body, make sounds and if you look closely, you can see the very beginnings of communication. You, other the other hand, may be a very capable professional. Your learning edge may look like studying next to your work, or going on a blind date.
So I guess I still don’t know what childhood is. Where it starts and ends. I realised however, that it helps me understand children, if I look at them as not that different from adults. Just as it helps me understand adults by considering them as not that different from children. We’re all learning beings and we are all capable. How would you approach a child, if you considered them as a capable being? What would change in your approach to yourself and to your fellow adults if you approached both as learners?