CYC-Online 108 FEBRUARY 2008
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The Embodiment of Knowledge: A Phenomenological Approach to Child Care

David Austin and William Halpin

ABSTRACT: This article adopts a “phenomenological” approach to the practice of child care. From this perspective, it is suggested that true understanding is embedded in the experience of the child and not in scientific explanations. Using the philosophy (or epistemology) of Edmund Husserl a phenomenology of child care is briefly described and differentiated from the essentials of mainstream practice.

This is an article about child care in which we will attempt to suggest a new way of working with children, or, rather of thinking about how we work with children. We have chosen to call our approach “phenomenological.” We hope that this will not scare anyone off, but we are of the opinion that an approach based in the epistemology of Husserl and its implications for child care, offers a way of structuring our intervention efforts in a meaningful way. More specifically, this article is about the phenomenological method as the method to be used by direct care workers in their interactions with children, particularly in a residential setting. We shall make much use of the concept of life space.

Our aim in taking this approach is not only to offer what we hope will be an insightful analysis of the value of residential child care work, but also to support the notion that the child care worker is truly the hub of the wheel in this system of care. Although this is frequently said by numerous authors, the fact is that the role of the child care worker is still ambiguous, or defined in management terms, leaving the “therapy” to the professional. We will argue that no residential center can truly call itself a treatment center unless the central role of the child care worker is supported, and this in turn requires that child care workers be educated, and not simply exposed to in-service training programs.

We think that a phenomenological approach offers and supports a central role for the child care worker because, as we shall see, it is the child care worker who, more than any other person, occupies the relationship to the child which allows for the approach. One of the problems with the professional status of child care workers is that they have lacked a knowledge base. We are convinced that our approach will provide them with such a base.

Ontological assumptions
Because we wish to make our approach as clear as possible, we will start with our fundamental assumptions about the nature of man or, if you prefer, child. They may be listed as follows:

Epistemological assumptions
Our ontology obviously defines our epistemology. We assume that the natural world and the human world are very different, and that therefore the traditional scientific method, which has proved so fruitful in the natural world, is limited in value in the human world. A different method is needed:

The core of care
Before we proceed to our analysis of phenomenology, we want to spend a little time looking at what child care work is about. For us “care” is the core concept of the profession. Other professions can talk about child development, group dynamics, behavior modification, etc., all of which provide valuable knowledge, but the essence of child care is the practice of knowledge through living with others in their life space in the expectation that such shared existence will allow not only a shared knowledge of what is, but also a shared aspiration of what may be.

“To care for another person, in the most significant sense, is to help him grow and actualize himself.” (Mayeroff, 1971, p.l). This statement sounds simple but it is worth emphasizing that it is the cared-for-person who is important, not the care-giver. The assumption is that children are capable of growth, and that this growth comes from within the child, and is not imposed from without. The task of the child care worker is to foster that growth by creating an appropriate climate in which it can occur.

There is of course an element of training in all child care work, and we are not arguing that the techniques for such training should be thrown away in a fit of humanistic disgust. It should be realized, however, that such techniques must be subservient to a respect for the child. The danger lies in viewing the child as a lump of clay, and the task of child care as one of molding. Even if it is true that under the right conditions people can be molded (and the concentration camps of World War II would seem to suggest both this and at the same time the credible autonomy of certain human beings even under those circumstances), the result is a person who is dependent on the environment and who lacks the only thing which distinguishes human beings, namely the capacity to exercise free and responsible choice:

Through caring for certain others a man lives the meaning of his own life. In the sense in which a man can ever be said to be at home in the world, he is at home not through dominating, or explaining, or appreciating, but through caring and being cared for (Mayeroff, p. 2).

It is a truism, but nonetheless true, that children grow through being cared for and, in turn, caring. If children are not cared for, there is evidence that they cannot care for others. It is only through caring that we become human. Children in care need care. It is for this reason that care is the core of our profession, and this should not be forgotten in the search for status. We should not be ashamed to admit that we care.

If we ask what “caring” involves, Mayeroff suggests the following components:

- Non impositional
- Devotion
- Knowledge of others directly
- Authenticity
- Trust
- Humility
- Process more important than product
- Constancy and continuity
- Separate but together
- Sharing
- Subject, not object
- Non judgemental
- Growth oriented
- Living with
- Everyday action
- Lived experience
- Relationships are important and central

While we can argue which concepts should and should not be included in any such list, the common thread that links these concepts with our view of man (child), our view of child care, is obvious.

It is our contention that the epistemology which best suits our needs in the context of child care, as defined, is that offered by Husserl and his followers, and we shall now turn to an exposition of his thought, in so far as it applied to our field.

The basic tenets of phenomenology
The basic tenets of phenomenology applicable to the question at hand, are as follows:

Bracketing the natural attitude. This involves suspending the everyday belief in the laws of the natural world (cause, effect, time, etc.).

In this there is a shift in focus from studying the specific objects of a given conscious experience to studying the essential character of the acts of consciousness, which is the arena in which essences can be grasped.

Through bracketing, the world of sensation is immediately grasped.

This immediate experience is a bodily felt experience of the world. During therapy, for instance, clients are frequently aware of feelings which they cannot put into words.

Applications to child care
If we ask, what has all this got to do with child care, our answer is, everything! It has always been our contention that child care workers, because they live in the world of the child to a greater extent than any other worker, have unique access to knowledge about that child (although of course any person acting truly as a therapist will also share that possibility). This unique knowledge is generally not used, confronted as it is with the “superiority” of the natural model of explanation at team conferences, etc. To us the silliest quote in the entire child care literature is the following, from Mayer:

The caseworker has to rely on the child care worker’s ability to observe and report the significant behavior of the child. The child care worker has to rely on the caseworker’s ability to interpret the behavior and its meaning in the daily life of the child. (1958, p. 163).

The remark shows utter confusion. It assumes that the caseworker, who presumably is removed from the child, can tell the child care worker, who shares the life space of the child, what the “meaning” of experience is for that child. This is nonsense. Only the child care worker, in the above scenario, has access to that meaning. He/she can certainly tell the caseworker what that meaning is, but to translate that into Freudian, Lewinian or anyone else’s theory is not to give it meaning, but to apply a natural science model of explanation which may or may not be helpful in looking at the child's behavior, but is immediately separated from the immediate experience of truth that was given at the time it happened.

It is regrettable, we think, that most child care work consists in this kind of analysis, where the immediate data of experience are translated into theoretical terms in a post fact analysis, and that this translation then is viewed as somehow truer than the original grasped experience itself.

Another way of looking at this is to say that the task of the child care worker is understanding, not explanation. Perhaps an example will help:

... the truth of an answer is not a matter of its correspondence to some exterior criteria. Rather, it is a matter of the particular articulation of the whole, and thus, is itself temporal. When the chessmaster asks what move would be appropriate, the correct answer to the question is not an answer that is correct because it corresponds to an ideal chess game in the sky somewhere. The true answer is a response. It takes account of the give-and-take of the game as a whole, the giveness and possibilities created by previous responses and the activity of the other player, and in that taking account continues the articulation of the whole.... The player seeks understanding, not explanation. She or he does not care what the answer is to the question “What set of causes brought me here to play this game and put me in this position?” ....If there are such causes the game is already decided. It cannot be played, it can only be verified. Therefore as a player rather than an observer, the person cannot ask such casual questions. To ask them requires leaving the game.... (Faulconer & Williams, 1985, pp. 1185-1186).

The child care worker is a player immersed in the game of caring for the child. In the process of the game, the child care worker seeks to understand the child, not explain him or predict him. In the process of the game the child care worker is able to do this, to some extent, because he and the child are partners in the game, they share the game, the game does not exist without them.

Child care is in a desperate state as it futilely tries to ape the scientific model and attain what it thinks of as certainty. There is no such thing. What child care should do is to claim, rightly, that it is interested in truth and understanding, not explanation and prediction, in essence not in statistics, and that through its involvement in the life space of the child it can partially attain that goal.


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This feature: Austin, D. and Halpin, W. (1988). The embodiment of knowledge: A phenomenological approach to child care. Journal of Child Care, Special issue 1988. pp. 7-16.

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