CYC-Online 25 FEBRUARY 2001
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Working phenomenologically with children

What we, as adults today, see in any situation is not what the children see. Yet we once did see what the children see. Alan Roberts writes about an important, even vital, perspective in child care practice

Hell is other people. – Jean Paul Sartre

Love is other people. – Martin Buber

Two diametrically opposite existential positions – the poles at either end of the spectrum of existence.

Naturally “other people" includes children – one's own children or other people's children or both. Perhaps particularly in relation to children, one comes to feel more powerfully pulled and pushed from and towards either of these two existential poles.

Being in the life of another
A general phenomenological principle for working effectively with children, one which may make such work less hellish and one which provides an antidote to the equations that psychology can reduce people to, is expressed by Buber thus: To “imagine the real" – “a bold swinging (demanding the most intensive stirring of one's being) into the life of the other". If one can succeed in putting this principle into effect, not only by imagining what it is like to be a child involved in a particular behaviour, cognitive process or emotional state, but also remembering what it was like for oneself when one was the same age involved in the same (or similar) behaviour, cognitive process or emotional state, one begins to engage with the other person in what phenomenological-existential psychologists call authentic dialogue and relationship. One begins to work phenomenologically.

Imagination and memory
Authentic dialogue and relationship form the backbone of existential-phenomenological psychology. Authentic dialogue and relationship point to a way out of hell for both child and adult. Imagination and memory are the tools of phenomenological work, the machinery behind perception. Affirmation and empathy for the child's experience may be the end product of the work.

However, working phenomenologically depends on the extent to which the individual adult can permit herself to be aware of the story of her own past, and the extent of her servility to it and curtailment by it in the present.

Perceiving, through the use of imagination and memory, what it's like to be the child can be threatening for the adult with strict, critical, (introjected) parents who condemned, censured and criticised him/her from behaving, thinking and feeling like a child in the past. For such an adult, hell is children. Especially children who don't behave themselves.

Freedom to commit
Seeing 'I' to 'I' and working phenomenologically with children presents a challenge then. An unconscious taboo against being a child may emerge out of the adult person's own personal history. This unconscious dynamic may interfere with the adult's perceptions of children in the present.

Working phenomenologically thus involves in addition to conscious perception, employing memory and imagination, being well aware of one's own past childhood and how it affects one's work with children in the present, and lastly, stepping unreservedly into relationship and real dialogue.


Austin, O. and Halpin, W. Seeing “I to I": A Phenomenological Analysis of the Caring Relationship. The Child Care Worker, Vol.7, No. 3, March 1989. (Reprinted from the Journal of Child Care.)

Buber, M. Healing through Meeting. In Pointing the Way. Schocken Books. 1974. New York.

Friedman, M. Martin Buber's Life and Work. Wayne State University Press. Detroit, 1988.

Sartre, J. In Camera. Translated from the French. Hamilton, 1946.

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