Reflections on the Image of the Child: Reproducer or Creator of Culture

By Tarr, Patricia | Art Education, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Reflections on the Image of the Child: Reproducer or Creator of Culture


Tarr, Patricia, Art Education


In February 2002, I visited the infant/toddler and preprimary schools in Reggio Emilia (Italy) for the third time. Each visit has helped me to probe more deeply into their educational philosophy and the possibilities it opens for us in North America. Reggio educators' image of the child and how it permeates all that they do has profoundly impacted me. I often use Your Image of the Child-Where Teaching Begins by Loris Malaguzzi (1994), founder of the Reggio philosophy, to start conversations with my pre-service education students and my graduate students about the images of children we hold and the impact, implicitly and explicitly, that this has on the assumptions we have and choices we make as educators.

Let's consider some of the paradoxical images our society has of children: the child as cute object. Just watch a baby being passed around a group of adults, or look at images of children in your local card shop. The competent or "wiseass" child such as Kevin in Home Alone (Kincheloe, 1997) contrasts with the needy or deficit child who must be fixed or normalized by specially designed programs. The child as consumer of designer clothes, fast food, and media-generated merchandise contrasts with the innocent child who must be protected from sex, violence, and other evils in the world and who is offered Disney versions of the world and yet can dress like a miniature adult in sexually provocative clothing. The tabla rasa child is one who must be filled with the skills and knowledge deemed appropriate by all-knowing adults.

Dahlberg, Moss, and Pence (1999) argue that the image of the child as an innocent is "a form of sentimentalization. . . . here childhood is seen as the 'golden age' and it is society which corrupts the goodness with which all children are born" (p. 45). They continue:

This image of the child generates in adults a desire to shelter children from the corrupt surrounding world-violent, oppressive, commercialized and exploitative-by constructing a form of environment in which the young child will be offered protection, continuity and security. (p. 45)

Think about how this plays out in the classroom environments and curricula we provide for young children, with cute, smiling cartoon figures decorating walls and sugarcoating worksheets (Tarr, 2001). Curriculum is often covered at a superficial level rather than lived in and around questions that truly engage children. Curricula need to take up children's questions rather than ignoring or glossing over their issues. This need to shelter and protect children is closely related to images of children that have been constructed by the field of developmental psychology.

The hegemony of developmental psychology on our understanding of children has restricted our vision of them in relation to developmental stages. These are seen as universal and natural stages irrespective of context or culture. However, postmodern critiques have questioned the universality of these stages (Canella, 1997; Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 1999; Walsh, 2002). Canella points out that these stages, with their implicit assumptions of deficit, marginalize the child as "other" (p. 34). Additionally, in Dahlberg, Moss, and Pence's view, the consequence of our reliance on developmental stages has been to decontextualize child and children. They state that "we lose sight of their lives, their concrete experiences, their actual capabilities, their theories, feelings and hopes" (p. 36). As Walsh points out, educators have spent time and effort educating the "eternal child," determining what children are ready for or not ready to undertake (p. 102). In North America we have also remained focused on the individual child in relationship to developmental stages or to learning. It seems to be that only with the influence the social-historical psychology of Lev Vygotsky (1978) have educators looked to the impact of social context on a children's learning.

Carla Rinaldi, Pedagogical Consultant for Reggio Children writes, "The image of the child is above all a cultural (and therefore social and political) convention that makes it possible to recognize (or not) certain qualities and potential in children" (Rinaldi, 1998b, p.

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