Written by: Lindsay Lichty
“How, then, do we come to understand the child’s experiences?... [We] become anthropologists of childhood, recognizing that we are both embedded in, and yet distanced from, that very culture we once inhabited…It is the task of the adult “researcher” to uncover the existential ground of the everyday life experiences of the child and render them visible to those in power by giving them sensible actuality”
–Polakow, The Erosion of Childhood
A few months ago, I was thinking a lot about intentional gatherings in my practice. I was noticing that so many children sat for only a short time at the table, and I noticed that there was a lot of conflict during this time of day. I deduced that it was a combination of things—fatigue (this was the time before nap), low blood sugar (because of the lack of food the children were consuming), dehydration (very few of them sat long enough to drink water), and irritability (I noticed that a lot of arguments stemmed around a feeling of being unheard).
I brought in a blank notebook and wondered if the lunch table could become a place for sharing stories.
By recording children’s stories, I wondered what I might learn about them—what were they thinking about? I wondered if we could create a ritual of listening, to one another’s narratives. I wondered if we could create an intentional gathering of speaking and feeling understood. I believe that listening, as opposed to just hearing, is a skill that we must cultivate in order to create more peaceful ways of being. How empowering could it be for children for their voice to be validated?
I quickly learned that children loved poop.
Poopy butts. Poopy pants. Poopy heads. Poopy bums. Poopy diapers. I was conflicted, I didn’t want to write what was being narrated. The table was in uproarious laughter, and I wanted a gavel to slam on the table, “Order! Order!”
These are some of the tensions of the early years, and of many interpersonal relationships. How can we enter into spaces with curiosity? I was brought to this inquiry through intention, and I was conflicted because I was attached to an outcome. Daily, children teach me about conflict, about power, and emotions.
I went with it, and wrote a story about poopy things. It was uncomfortable, and the piece of paper floated around the room until it eventually was lost.
Our new storybook began with Alicia’s intentions, of learning more about people’s individual experiences and stories, and has blossomed into something beautiful. I feel as though she entered into her inquiry with curiosity. She offered the first story in the book, and by doing so, she inspired the types of stories the book collects.
Despite the move away from poopy-ness appearing in our stories, it was everywhere. Children delighted in their conversations about poop, and pee, and butts. I found it exhausting, because it was uncomfortable, and I wanted to control it. I wanted to control these conversations because they were socially unacceptable. I felt a sense of guilt when families were present, as though I was responsible for the “poonami” (funnily enough, I learned this term from a child that was telling me about when he was a baby, and the stories he has had relayed to him of that time. He learned that his diapers were at times so explosive, his family called them, “poonamis”. I laughed with the pure delight that the children seemed to experience each time they heard or said this word).
I reverted to old habits of control, repeating the words of educators I had worked with in the past, “Do you have to use the bathroom? Those are bathroom words. If you keep talking about poop, we can go to the bathroom.”
This method of communication doesn’t stop the behavior, it just ensures that I will not be included in the joke. It’s punitive, and creates a division in our relationship as equals. Suddenly, I’m enforcing my role as the “teacher” and the child is placed beneath me, as a “student”. In this moment, I only succeed in teaching them that I don’t get it, and if they were older, I’m sure they’d roll their eyes, maybe they’d even turn me into a meme, showcasing my disconnect with their culture.
It triggered in me, a desire to assert my power. And perhaps, that’s what all of this was about.
“Interpretation clarifies the meaning of experience and lays the groundwork for understanding”
–Denzin, Interpretative Interactionism
This brings me to the present, and the tensions in my practice. How do I make space for children to explore a sense of real power in their days? In reality, they have limited opportunities to make real choices in their days. Someone else decides when they wake up, largely controls what and when they eat, what they wear, and most of the pragmatic details of their life. Certainly adults offer choices, but, they choice is in-between the blue cup and the red cup, the apples or the carrots, in some ways it is an illusion of choice.
I’m not saying I would be comfortable in a world where children do their own groceries, and learn through trial and error that sustaining life on a diet of ice-cream is impossible. To the contrary, as an educator, I recognize the benefits of controlling the environment, and allowing as many freedoms as possible within an intentional space.
I also notice that it’s during times of transition that the majority of conflicts happen in our group. “Do you want to wear your muddy-buddy, or carry it outside?” In the question, I have ensured that the child will have the appropriate gear, the illusion of choice, to distract from the fact that they don’t have a choice in terms of going outside.
“You can go the bathroom now, or in five minutes,” again, an illusion of choice. We provide care for a large group of children, and there is often tension between the good of the whole, versus the good of the individual. We try to illustrate democracy by having votes, “Stand here if you want to go to the Truck Park, stand there if you want to go to Waterworks.” We seek to be fair, and still, there are times when children are left with little power.
So where can we give them real power? Poopy pants. Poopy bums. Poopy heads. Poopy. Poopy. Poop. How can I make space for their choice of language? How can I recognize the values of their culture? They like things that make them laugh. They like having things that belong to them. This language belongs to them.
Yesterday, a child was very upset as his father left in the morning. This has been happening a lot lately, and the old ways of comforting the child are no longer satisfying to his emotional needs. He isn’t open to being hugged, or to stories, or to being held. He stood, holding open the door. He begged his father to come back for to more minutes. His father regretfully said that he already stayed for five extra minutes and that he needed to leave to work. I asked the child about a song he had been singing yesterday, “tell me about those love bugs,” I said, crawling my fingers up his arm. A micro-smile appeared on his lips, and I could see him thinking, considering this invitation, for a split second before he remembered that he was sad because his father was leaving, and he began to bargain again.
I noticed one of the out-of-school-care leaders on the playground, and pointed him out to the child. The child smirked at the leader, and the leader playfully stuck out his tongue, stretching his fingers over his head like antlers. The child lit up, and mirrored the adult’s gestures, sticking out his tongue, and waving his hands from the top of his head.
“Hi, Poopy Butt,” the leader called out.
I looked at the child, with a look of exaggerated disbelief, “Did he just call YOU an poopy butt?”
The child laughed and called out louder, “No, YOU’RE a poopy butt!” He began laughing, his inner light sparked, and soon he entered the room, muttering the words, “poopy butt,” to himself.
I followed behind him, in disbelief, and compassion.
So here I am, reflecting on how to make space for the “Poopyness” in my practice.
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