Anne Stonehouse has been a part of the Gowrie family for over 41 years. The first edition of Ourselves in their Shoes was published by Gowrie Victoria (then, the Lady Gowrie Child Centre Melbourne) in 1981. Following three print versions, a fourth version was launched in 2019 as an online resource. Glyn Williams met with Anne to learn more about the resource and how Anne hopes it will be used by educators, other professionals and families today.
Glyn: Thank you for joining me, Anne. Could you begin by telling us what led you to write the booklet in the first place?
Anne: Very early in my professional life, I read a book by John Holt, who was a highly regarded, somewhat controversial, educationalist in the United States. He wrote a number of books, but the one that stayed with me was titled Escape from Childhood. There were many references in that book to how adults sometimes view and treat young children as less than fully human. He questioned why it’s satisfying for adults to see children as cute, dependent and powerless — why we don’t always take their feelings seriously.
These ideas have been one of the drivers of my professional life: A desire to allow people to see that, in many ways, children are more like us than they are different to us — when it comes to what really matters. So, when the opportunity arose to do some writing in my position at Gowrie back in the late 70s/early 80s, that was a topic that I really wanted to write about.
Glyn: It sounds as if the main messages are timeless?
Anne: I think so. The ideas are as relevant now as they were then, despite the increase in our understandings about how young children think and feel.
Although new research and theoretical perspectives have allowed us to understand children better, there is still a sense with some people that children are basically not the same as the rest of us. Young children are often labelled as cute or innocent or naïve. I think the younger the child, the more likely it is that people believe that. One of the major interests in my career has been to point out and address our tendencies to misinterpret young children’ communication and behaviour and to underestimate their intelligence and sensitivity.
Glyn: Who is the resource for?
Anne: It’s relevant for anybody who engages with young children, including, among others, parents/family members, educators, child health professionals and playgroup facilitators. It’s also for people who offer pre-service/in-service education, early childhood professionals and those who offer support to parents/families…and so on!
Glyn: How do you hope it’ll be used? What would you want somebody to be thinking or doing differently after reading it?
Anne: I hope that it will be a reminder for some people to empathise, to try and take the child’s perspective. For others it may provide insights that change the way they see young children. I’d like to open their eyes and minds and cause them to reflect more deeply on the meaning of children’s behaviour and ultimately to offer children a better experience. Children are much wiser and more sensitive than we give them credit for. They are learning all the time, despite the social and physical worlds being very confusing at times.
One thing I don’t want is for people to feel guilty. Many of the situations that are depicted are common and many come out of my own personal and professional experience. It’s impossible to live up to our expectations all the time!
It’s much easier to talk about, teach about, write about and speak about the right thing to do with children than it is to actually do it day after day after day. My hope is that users of the resource will have some “aha” moments and think about encounters with children in a new way. The resource is a plea for empathy.
For instance, one scenario focuses on the way a firstborn child might feel when there’s a new baby in the family. The analogy is: What if your romantic partner tells you ‘I’ve met someone else whom I love as much as you and they’re going to live with us. You two will get along really well’? I believe that, no matter how thorough the preparation, that’s how it might feel to a firstborn child when a new baby comes into the family. Firstborns adjust, but it’s challenging.
Glyn: Will the fact that it’s now an online resource impact how people use it, do you think?
Anne: The format opens up some new possibilities. It makes it more accessible, plus it’s free. People can focus on one scenario at a time rather than trying to digest all of them.
Glyn: That’s what I was thinking when I was looking at the online version. It lends itself well to provoking discussion — in workshop settings, for example.
Anne: The new illustrations allow for great thought-provoking and role-play opportunities. Each scenario is illustrated by the very talented Oslo Davis. The illustrations and the text encourage adults to think about those scenarios from a child’s perspective. Often exaggerated and always humorous, the illustrations themselves convey powerful messages.
Glyn: Tell us how the resource is structured, so that people can understand how they might interact with it.
Anne: There is an introduction, an overview of the themes and aim and then 18 illustrated scenarios.
Each scenario encourages users to consider situations from the child’s point of view. For example, there’s the suggestion that we may have higher expectations of children when it comes to sharing than we do for ourselves. What about laughing when a child makes a mistake, or dismissing a child’s attempts to be helpful? Young children are delightful and endearing and they make us smile, but they also deserve our respect.
Glyn: This is even more important these days with social media. It’s so easy for an image to be shared, and the internet never forgets.
Anne: Yes, that’s true. And I’m not saying it’s wrong for people to share amusing photos of children or to have a laugh — you know, the baby with food spread all over their face — but we do need to reflect on what we are doing. Educators often take photos of children and share them with families and sometimes the broader community. It’s worth reflecting on what these images say about how they see children. Are they respectful? Might they seem to be ‘buying into’ a culture in which young children are laughed at rather than respected and empathised with. This is a worthwhile conversation for people in the early childhood sector to have.
The contents of In their Shoes are intended to promote debate and reflection, to elicit varying views. Some users will disagree with some of the content. That’s good!
In Their Shoes, written by Anne Stonehouse and illustrated by Oslo Davies, can be viewed here: http://www.in-their-shoes.com.au/
Main photo: Anne (right) with Joan Waters at Gowrie Victoria’s 80th celebrations earlier this year.