Over the course of November 3rd and 4th, I participated in a workshop organized by Priscilla and Rose of ABTH called “The Importance of Early Childhood for Professionals in the Rights Guarantee System” (A importância da Primeira Infância para os Profissionais do Sistema de Garantia dos Direito). The “Sistema de Garantia dos Direitos da Infância e da Adolescência,” or SDG, is the result of several public policy initiatives, including the Brazilian Constitution and the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, to create a systems-based approach to child protection and care. It brings together a variety of government agencies and non-governmental organizations across the fields of health, social services, education, public safety and justice to ensure the rights of children at the municipal, state, and federal levels in Brazil. Many daycare, health and primary school professionals participated in the ABTH workshop, which took a rights-based approach to early childhood.
The workshop consisted of two presentations a day. Topics included the specificity of early childhood, the importance of play, family services, and public policies related to early childhood. While I enjoyed the entire workshop, the presentation on the specificity of early childhood stood out to me.
Silva Neli Barbosa, a professor from PUC-Rio, gave the first presentation of the event on the specificity of early childhood. Her presentation began with a simple question, what is early childhood? Attendees volunteered answers like “purity,” “development,” “imagination,” and “curiosity.” Prof. Neli then differentiated between “childhood,” as a socio-historic developmental stage and the “child,” asking the participants to engage in another word association activity. Responses included “subject,” “happiness,” and “vulnerability.”
The paradigm shift came when she asked us to think of the children that we attended to at our various organizations. Then attendees suggested words like “abandonment,” “neglect,” and “trauma” for childhood, and “sadness” and “depression” for the child.
She stressed that children, especially young children, were not merely imaginative, but transgressive and innovative, creating solutions without full knowledge of the problem, or even knowledge of the problem's existence. Prof. Neli Barbosa illustrated this through a children´s book and activity involving a red handkerchief. As adults we struggled to see passed the handkerchief´s common uses--headband, mask, tie-- while young children often engage with such objects at a more material level, creating new forms like flowers and wings.
Even, or perhaps especially, children in adverse situations are capable of this radical creativity in order to generate coping mechanisms and resilience. In this sense, young children's potential is both personal and social, and has important implications for those who work toward social justice.
I found one insight from the presentation especially significant for helping me on my journey to better understand the field of child protection and care: “In regards to very young children, people often confuse vulnerability with inability.”
In the humanitarian field, we often use words like "capacity building" and "empowerment" to describe our work. While I understand the importance of such terms in context, I often feel in the case of children--or any vulnerable population for that matter--that these words only make sense when children are stripped of their capacities and learn to be “un-empowered” through conditions of abandonment, marginalization, violence, or neglect. As I gain more experience in the field, I hope to always keep in mind that my role is not only to work on behalf of children, but more importantly with and alongside them, so that they don’t “un-learn” their own resilience and capabilities. While I work toward creating safe and stimulating childhoods for those who participate in ABTH services, I do not want to lose sight of the child as subject and an agent of change capable of creating their own ideal childhood, often with the simplest tools like a handkerchief.