🦙The Llamas in New York City 🦙

By Sahana Narayan & Tran Templeton

Sahana: I feel like a lot of adults often think that kids don’t know anything because they’re kids. And because they’re kids, adults don’t really need to pay attention to them. But sometimes kids can actually be directing you to something or teaching you something you didn’t know before. But you might never know that you didn’t know that before because you never listened to them.

Tran: Mmm, that’s a challenge too in terms of knowing that you didn’t know something. 

Sahana: I mean in general I feel like adults should pay a lot more attention to what kids like, cause sometimes kids will be playing with something and then the adult will take it away or say “Oh, you don’t know how to use that properly. You’re just young.” But maybe they have a different idea of how to use it.

In our conversations leading up to this writing, we continued to flesh out some fundamental ideas that we had talked about with Nathan and Haeny on Pop & Play: that children should be heard, that they see beauty in things that adults might not. For example, in the research that Tran has done with preschoolers, the children took pictures of things that were a part of their lives when they were just 3- and 4-year-olds. In the episode, Sahana gave the example of garbage and old plastic cans. Adults usually want to frame photographs without the things they think of as “unsightly,” but children see the world in a different way. Even the simplest of objects, for example, many adults can have very narrow ways of using them. Children can teach them ways to be more creative, but the hard part is getting adults to listen. In this writing, we’ll discuss this complexity, especially when it comes to school, as well as what we think intergenerational listening entails: adults declaring solidarity with children. 

On Pop & Play, Sahana actually had a time and space where she could explain these things. Most children don’t have a chance to share their perspectives, and it’s not always easy for them to share how they feel with the adults around them. Some adults may listen. They may speak with a tone of voice that makes them sound like they’re listening or that it actually kind of matters to them. But what ends up happening many times is that they either think what children say is cute (and therefore not a matter or import) or they may criticize children’s opinions based on what they think is proper to do and say in public.

The Differences Between Children and Adults 

One key place where it’s important to see how adults’ and children’s ideas differ is in school. We include teachers and researchers when we talk about adults here because researchers are supposed to be doing the work that helps make school a better place for children. Most of the time, though, children’s perspectives and opinions about school aren’t even considered or mentioned. There’s a difference between what schools are doing (or what they think they’re doing) and what children are actually doing (and learning about) in school; educational research would be better if researchers included what kids think and feel about school.

For example, schools emphasize state tests and assessments, and that impacts children’s experiences. Here’s what we both have seen: adults think that if kids hear about their test scores and grades, it’ll push them to do better. That’s not always what happens, though. What really ends up happening is that children who don’t do well, according to adults, end up thinking of themselves as terrible at school. This creates a vicious cycle where teachers believe they are supporting a child through paying special attention to them, by separating them from their peers and taking them out to the hallway to provide one-on-one support. That’s the thing they shouldn’t do though. It can cause the child embarrassment, and their classmates notice these moments when they’re taken out of the classroom. This child becomes labeled as “the kid who doesn’t know anything’” instead of what’s really happening: this is the kid who has to be in the hall because teachers think they need special attention. They become the kid who failed, and nobody wants to be the kid who failed

We give this example to illuminate the idea that when a few children are impacted negatively by school practices, all the children witness and experience the negative effects of it too. They learn (wrongly) about which children are considered failures. We understand that state assessments might teach people about where schools stand, but we also think that policies and tests influence how teachers and researchers listen. They emphasize something that is completely different from what children want for their school experiences. Frankly, children are simply doing their best in school, and contrary to what adults might believe, children can live without school as it is. They don’t want to always be told to not talk, to stand in line, to make the line 180 degrees, and the myriad rules that adults make up for children to follow. Children want to be creative; they want more interesting ways to learn, beyond just memorizing and memorizing. That’s just not how children learn. 

Children want to play. They want to create stories. They want to pretend. And that pretend play may be much deeper than what adults think is happening. While adults may think that a child happened to simply come up with a creative and amusing story, the play may be based on what happened that day, something upsetting, something wonderful, something they want to happen. In their play, children may be working out feelings… or a wish. Adults should pay attention to this play, as long as children allow them to be part of it. 

We don’t want to discount the fact, however, that there are adults who try to hear children out, though this can be hard for many reasons. One of these reasons, as we’ve drawn out in this section, has to do with what school emphasizes: academics. Rather than focusing on academics, teachers and researchers should also focus on the relationships kids form at school. This could help them see the creativity in the things kids do. A good example of this is how Sahana’s theater teacher approaches teaching. Instead of forcing children to enact a play that’s bland or isn’t meaningful to kids, the teacher asked the children to write the play together themselves. He also invited the children to do this rather than forcing them to give up their lunch and recess times on certain days. And as easily as children opted in to participating, they could just as easily opt out. In this play-writing space, children could be creative, they could add their own ideas and negotiate their ideas with other kids. The end result is something new and original. It’s a play made by children for children, not the kinds of performance we often see in schools. 

Intergenerational Learning Starts with Solidarity with Children 

Children play a role in the dynamics between adults and kids too. We’ve both witnessed moments when power struggles happen: when children assert themselves in ways that adults have a hard time managing. We think it’s possible for adults and children to listen to each other though. This happens best when adults let go of the need for control and when children understand that sometimes what they think is unfair, may actually be in the best interest of the community. That said, there’s a power imbalance and so the responsibility is on the adults, as the ones with more structural power, to declare solidarity with children. We have a few ideas as to what this means…

First, adults should understand that children aren’t always heard or seen and they need to make meaningful attempts to hear and see them. Children’s ideas might not be connected to what adults care about, but it’s worth hearing them out on their terms. Kids have so many good ideas, and you might miss out on them if you dismiss what children have to say simply because they’re younger. In Bayo Akomolafe’s words: 

Children now come out of the earth, dragging the textures of wisdoms gone before, and bringing it up with them. They’re not tabula rasa, they’re not empty slates, they’re alive in the wisdom of ancestors that are still folded in the thick present. Pay homage to the multiple that is lingering within them. (For the Wild podcast, episode 155)

Second, adults should listen for more than what they want to hear because their ways of getting to “the point” are not children’s ways of getting there. This happens a lot in school when adults think that children are off-topic during a group discussion or off-task during a lesson. Give children the benefit of the doubt. Know that kids have other ways of paying attention or telling a story. They operate from a different set of understandings. Though they are perceived as people who challenge the norms, children don’t see it that way. They see it as honesty, as telling others what they actually think. In other moments, they may also be playing with absurd ideas.  For example, kids may call an adult a tomato, but they don’t do it to be disrespectful. Kids do try to respect adults. They often go well beyond that, but it seems that adults don’t notice that.

Third, adults should reconsider preconceived notions about children as only thinking about themselves, as incapable of handling freedom, and as property belonging to adults. Children have a lot of empathy for others: for the kid who has to go out in the hallway for extra tutoring, for cats that are misunderstood, even for adults who aren’t heard by children. These feelings are part of their inner worlds, which they actively have are their own, independent of adults’ lives. In the edited book Trust Kids, carla joy bergman wonders “how we can create more autonomous communities through deepening our relationships with children” (p. 8). We read a few paragraphs of this chapter together and agree that trusting kids would help us have a better world. It would widen our horizons; we wouldn’t be so narrow in how we think about things or how we try to solve problems. Maybe we’d figure out something that’s actually important.