Too Young for Respect? Realising Respect for Young Children in Their Everyday Environments: A Cross-Cultural Analysis
"‘Children should be seen and not heard’. Dismissive statements like this one about children, especially young children, are heard in various societies and express a trivialisation of childhood that is often taken as justified."
This paper from the Bernard van Leer Foundation explores the conceptual underpinnings of disrespect shown to young children in everyday life in cultures around the world. As stated here: "General Comment 7 of the Committee on the Rights of the Child urges that the youngest children should be respected as persons in their own right, within an environment of reliable and affectionate relationships based on respect and understanding. ...Two case studies are presented, one pertaining to children from birth to three years in day care environments, and the other focusing on children above the age of four years in primary school settings."
According to the author, experiments with building relationships of respect with young children by creating respectful environments provide lessons which arise from failures as well as from successes. The two cases described represent systematic efforts to create "respectful environments" for young children from birth onwards. The first one is called: "Living Democracy in Day Nurseries", a German day nursery project. In this nursery environment for the very young, work on respectful treatment of children includes, for example, children deciding as a group what their afternoon activities will be. The caregivers use various forms of dialogue to reach consensus, working to recognise the opinions of each child.
The second example, "Young Children and the Human Dignity Initiative", is of a project responding to bullying and property damage in schools in Israel: "The project... covered nine primary schools located in neighbourhoods that are disadvantaged socially, politically or economically....The problem analysis did not present primary school-age children as ‘little hooligans’ in urgent need of discipline. The focus was instead on schools as organisations, and each school was approached as a complex system of relationships that must become imbued with respect for every individual’s dignity. The goal was that the behaviour of all actors - principal, staff, parents and children - would become mutually respectful. The only new resource introduced into a school by the project was a facilitator from the Human Dignity Initiative team, who was expected, over a period of three years, to mobilise and institutionalise resources for respect and empathy that were already present among the various actors in the school.
The project exemplified respect for early childhood, children’s rights and children’s participation by: explicitly recognising the personhood and dignity of young children; establishing symmetrical relationships of respect between children and adults, rather than the more usual asymmetrical relationships; translating abstract rights - a child’s own rights as well as other people’s - into tangible everyday behaviour; encouraging each child to understand the intrinsic value of his or her self, as well as the value of another person’s self; and promoting early exposure to values of human dignity and behaviour oriented towards respect."
Cultural contexts for the work varied, in part because school populations varied from secular to religious, and were Jewish and Arab. Communication methods included:
- a project inauguration in one school with a display of balloons on which children had written messages expressing respect
- facilitated workshops with principals and faculty, including: models of leadership; how to maintain order without using threats of corporal punishment; the place of empathy in the setting of limits; how to exemplify respectful behaviour; and strategies that facilitate problem analysis, anger management, and development of empathy
- work with children on developing vocabulary for managing emotions
- divided play areas, according to age, with one class each week taking responsibility to prepare a special activity for the others
- changes in teachers' approachs to parent meetings, attempting to use empathy with parents
"The Human Dignity Initiative ran from 2004 to 2007 in the nine schools, after which it was established that, by and large: (a) increasingly positive relationships had developed among pupils, among staff and between pupils and staff, (b) violence among pupils was reduced and (c) pupils’ academic achievements had improved as had the professional achievements of staff....The four schools in which mutually respectful behaviour had been lastingly enhanced had (a) adopted a system-wide approach to respectful problem solving, and (b) succeeded in making this become part of the school’s routine....The successful schools had incorporated - among the mechanisms set up to promote human dignity - procedures that specifically addressed the needs and rights of the youngest children...", for example a "buddy" programme between younger and older students.
The document concludes that 1) young children's dependency should not be marked by the denial of respect or the withholding of autonomy in the first years following birth, and 2) respect can act as “real social glue” between older and younger children and between children and adults, whether teachers or parents, if the concept of respect is translated into shared behavioural codes that become routine in daily life.
Bernard van Leer Foundation website, December 7 2010.