CAMDEN –Want to capture the attention of a child? A Rutgers-Camden researcher says educators and parents could learn from the corporate world, which has long valued kids’ input.
Cindy Dell Clark, a visiting associate professor of anthropology, thinks schools and clinics could learn a thing or two from McDonald’s and Disney. Imagine what a dentist’s office would look like and how math books would be if kids could chime in?
“In America the for-profit world is ahead of the policy world when it comes to listening to children. There is so much at stake if we don’t start really understanding children, like our education system. Education hasn’t changed, but our kids’ world certainly has,” says Clark.
What we know about children in professions from health care to education often is culled not directly from children, but from the adults in their lives. Clark aims to change that in her new book, In a Younger Voice: Doing Child-Centered Qualitative Research (Oxford, 2011), which offers in-depth insight into effective ways to learn from children in research, and why what they have to say matters.
“This book provides a methodological game board for doing qualitative research with children—a template of the options and ways to maneuver in carrying out investigations that are child-involving and child-amplifying,” writes Clark.
Parents and scholars alike will benefit from this new book. Clark, who spent two decades as a qualitative research consultant before entering academia, says the best way to really know your child is to observe – or, even better, to engage in – play time.
“If you play with kids, it becomes obvious what important feelings they have,” she says. “Play is a vacation from what a child can’t change,” Clark explains, “so it gets you close to what matters to kids.” For her book In Sickness and in Play: Children Coping with Chronic Illness (Rutgers University Press, 2003), Clark asked children with asthma or diabetes to draw pictures of the day when their illness was cured. One asthmatic girl created a detailed drawing of her excitedly visiting perfume shops and pet stores, underscoring the child’s daily trials and restrictions without directly saying it.
Getting children to share, the Rutgers–Camden researcher advises, starts with recognizing that they are people who happen to communicate differently. A dialogue can begin by picking topics that kids care about. “I’ve never met a child that doesn’t want to complain about their sibling position,” she confides. It also helps to determine the child’s preferred way to communicate." Are they hands-on, even if you’re not? The author of Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith: Children’s Myths in Contemporary America (The University of Chicago Press, 1995), Clark was a pioneer in working closely with children to better understand their engagements with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. She found that children aren’t just passive receivers of cultural practices, but are actively contributing to and shaping cultural traditions. “What’s funny is that most kids don’t even picture the Easter Bunny the way we think they do. Most don’t anthropomorphize, but actually envision a rabbit,” grins Clark.
An adoptive mother of a son, Clark still appreciates the six months of training she and her husband received before officially becoming parents. Even with the extra preparedness, she acknowledges the intense challenges facing all parents today.
“Families are under enormous pressure. So much of the expressive nurturing once done by neighborhoods is now all done by parents,” says Clark. “Parents’ jobs are hard, helping children to carve out paths in a competitive society isn’t easy.”
What can help the rigors of parenthood in the 21st century is establishing early on strong communication skills with your children. “Their voices are always there,” she adds, “We need to open our ears and then be responsible for what we hear.”
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago, Clark was formerly an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State. Currently a visiting associate professor at Rutgers–Camden, Clark is teaching the classes of Myra Bluebond-Langner, a Rutgers Board of Governors Professor of Anthropology, who is serving as the UK’s first chair of pediatric palliative care at the University College London Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Media Contact: Cathy K. Donovan