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Seeing "I" to "I": A Phenomenological Analysis of the Caring Relationship

David Austin and William Halpin

In an effort to develop a knowledge base, child care has followed the precepts of a natural science model or man, with an emphasis on objectivity, causality, and documentation. In doing so, it has tended to forget that the most crucial knowledge about a child is gained in the process of interaction between child and child care worker. This article briefly argues that the best model for developing an understanding of that interaction is offered by Phenomenology, and its claim that caring interaction provides direct knowledge.

The caring relationship is at the epicentre of child care, and inhabiting this epicentre are the child carer and the child. This is epitomized in history by the relationship between mother and child, although recently the father has been allowed a brief role. The question of whether the mother-child relationship can ever really be substituted for is still with the jury, but the question of whether the caring relationship can ever be substituted for is, we would suggest uncontested: it cannot.

Children come into care because they come from being out-of care. The most important task for the new environment, whatever it is, is to reestablish in the child's being the possibility of relationship. Learning appropriate behaviours, cognitive skills, responses, is all secondary to this. As Keith-Lucas says most succinctly: "One doesn't have to behave in order to be loved, but be loved in order to behave." (1981, 12).

The elements that make up caring have been most powerfully detailed by Mayeroff (l971). They include commitment, love, constancy, patience, authenticity, an absence of judgement and a shared life. Given the demands of the experience of caring, most professionals have hastened to find reasons why caring is unprofessional. This is presently seen clearly in the field of day care, where we do not face the question of whether putting one's child with another during the day is detrimental to growth.

Phenomenology has nothing to say about caring itself, but the caring relationship as defined above is a lived experience which allows the full possibility of personal knowledge as described by a phenomenological approach. It is our basic position that what child care workers do in the caring environment allows to the fullest extent the fact of direct perception, something which all child care workers experience and know, and which only those persons who are removed from the shared lived-in experience deny.

Let us start by saying what phenomenology is not. It is not the mere reporting of subjective data. To ask someone to report on their perceptions or feelings about themselves is not phenomenological, although this is frequently asserted in the literature. Phenomenology aspires to be an epistemology which allows for the direct perception of another.

The way it does this is to argue, in essence, that if one looks at another, having bracketed all theories, preconceptions, notions, ideas, etc., of what the other is, then there is direct sight(in-sight). This involves the following:

  1. Suspending one's common sense beliefs in the natural world of cause and effect, time and sequence, object and subject. In child care terms, this can be translated as the suspension of beliefs (prejudices) about how children act, how this one in particular acts, what causes them to behave. The objective is not to see the child through the lens of some particular theory or history, but to see the child directly as he is living out his experience in the present and now.
  2. Seeing clearly and directly. The argument is that if one gets rid of one's prejudices as above, then one will be able to see clearly.
  3. Seeing consciously. Phenomenology focuses on the conscious, however inarticulate, and assumes that perception is conscious perception of another object.
  4. This other object can include another consciousness, so that one consciousness can perceive another consciousness.
  5. Frequently this immediate experience of another is a bodily felt awareness of the other (embodiment). One is aware of feelings before one can necessarily put them into words.
  6. In addition to directly seeing facts (that is a child) one is able to immediately grasp principles (that is an angry child).
  7. The "thing" doing the seeing is the "I," as in I SEE. The I is not a construct like the Ego, it is simply the irreducible see-er.
  8. One "I" can directly see another "I."
  9. Seeing clearly takes practice, just like anything else. It is not intuition, it is not empathy, it is not taking the role of the other, although all these things may help, it is seeing directly, without interference, and with clarity. Frequently in order to see clearly, one needs to focus, to attend, to intend to the other. What is seen dimly at first, or is felt bodily, with effort can become clear.
  10. If an "I" is to see another "I" clearly, then it is necessary they inhabit the same space, that they live in the same world of bodily felt experience. We feel/sense behaviour before we see. As soon as one steps out of that world, one becomes an observer, and ceases to perceive directly. An ob server can only see behaviour, not the intention of the behaver, and while reflection may be valuable, it is not perception. A scientist, of course, is yet further removed from direct experience, and inhabits a world of post facto analysis and deduction/induction.
  11.  The focus is on understanding and truth, not on explanation and prediction. While every child has a history, the importance of this history may help us understand the child, but it does not explain or predict the child; if it did, one would only have to know the history (read the chart) and one would be able to predict how the child will behave. The fact is, as every child care worker knows, one cannot predict a child's behaviour from reading about him, only from knowing him, and then only to a certain extent. The explanation of a child lies in his being at the moment, not in some distant past.

Alfred Schultz summaries the argument as follows:

"Sharing a community of space implies that a certain sector of the outer world is equally within the reach of each partner, and contains objects of common interest and relevance. For each partner, the other's body, his gestures, his gait and facial expressions, are immediately observable, not merely as things or events of the outer world but in their physiognomical significance, that is, as symptoms of other's thoughts. Sharing a community of time -- and this means not only of outer time but also of inner time -- implies that each partner participates in the on-rolling life of the other, can grasp in the vivid present the other's thoughts as they are built up step by step. They may thus share one another's anticipations of the future as plans, or hopes, or anxieties. In brief, consociates are mutually involved in one another's biography; they are growing old together; they live, as we may call it, in a pure We-relationship" (I, 1967, 16-17).

Let us give an example from the field of residential care. Residential care is clearly the best environment for analyzing what we are talking about. It is in residential care that the child care worker and the child most evidently share the same lived experience, and which therefore allows for the I to I sight.

Take a room where two boys are fooling around on the floor, making a lot of noise, their arms and legs thrashing, grunts and sweat pouring out. A child care worker walks into the room. What happens then depends on the extent to which the worker and the children have lived together -- know each other. If the child care worker is new, the likelihood is that he will be confused as to what to do, he will not know whether the boys are fighting seriously or horsing around, whether he should intervene, simply tell them to knock it off, call for help, etc. This is not because he does not "know the boys" -- he may have read their charts from beginning to end, have discussed them with other more experienced workers, talked about them with his supervisor. He may have a master's degree in child care, and ten years experience in some other setting. But he does not know these particular boys.

It is true that phenomenology would argue that if the worker looks at the boys, bracketing all his prejudices, that he can see them clearly. However, the chances of his doing that when he is a stranger are slight, and he is more likely to either play safe (tell the boys to stop, and put himself between them) or to start reacting before acting, in the hope of coming up with an explanation (was there anything in the charts which will explain this and help me decide what to do).

On the other side, if the boys do not know the worker, they too will have no direct perception of him (who is this guy) and will treat him as an object (let's see what he does) rather than a subject (Oh, it's Jim, we had better start behaving). Moreover while the worker is likely to want to perceive the boys directly, the boys may have no such motivation. Insight requires that the object as well as the subject permit direct access.

Schematically the I to I relationship can be simply drawn as below:

We cannot stress too strongly that in our experience this article will be perfectly acceptable (and comprehensible) to all those persons who have worked directly with children, and perfectly unacceptable to those who have not. We think that child care workers perceive in this way all the time and cannot say so, because direct perception and direct knowledge are not acceptable in the light of a natural science model of knowledge. In our opinion that should be too bad for the natural science model of knowledge.


Husserl, Edmund (1964). The Idea of Phenomenology, translated by William P. Alston and George Nakhnikian. The Hague; Martinus Nijhoff.

Keith-Lucas A. Report on Co-ordinated Child-Care Consultation. Paper presented to the Presbyterian Synod of North Carolina, Camp Caraway, Asheboro, N.C., March 10th.

Mayeroff, Milton (1971). On Caring. New York: Harper and Row.

Schultz, Alfred S. & Thomas Luckmann (1974). The Structures of the Life world. London: Heinemann Education Books Ltd.

Austin, D. and Halpin, W. (1987) Seeing "I" to "I": A phenomenological analysis of the caring relationship.


Journal of Child Care. Vol.3 No.3 pages 37—41. 

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