David Elkind

The World of the Child


Between 1978 1983, three of my four children were born, and, along with changing diapers, tripping over strollers in the front hall, and reading stories, my wife Jutta and I found ourselves in the middle of all the issues that preoccupied parents of that time.  We were, broadly speaking, hippies.  Two of our three children were born at home, and none of them attended primary school.  (One went to university without prior schooling; the other two decided, on their own initiative, to begin their formal education with high school.)  Our preferences leaned towards re-establishing the neighborly, home-made and de-professionalized form of life that our teacher and later friend Ivan Illich called the vernacular.  This had arguably been the dominant tendency in the social movements that came out of the 1960's, but, at the beginning of the 1980's, times were beginning to change again.  Feminism, for example, faced a crucial question.  Was it arguing only for the inclusion of women on equal terms in the existing economy, with the requirement that children be institutionalized from infancy onwards in order to keep their mothers "at work"?  Or would the women's movement undermine and upset the very categories of modern economic society and begin a move towards a world less focused on jobs, production, and budgeted time and, therefore, more hospitable to children?  Early daycare was a big issue, because it epitomized a larger conflict: the contradiction between the nature of children and the character of the society in which they were trying to grow up. 

In her book The Self-Respecting Child, British writer Alison Stallibrass speaks of the developing child as having an elusive "growing tip."  Where it is, at a given moment, can be detected but not predicted.   Child development, in other words, occurs at its own eccentric and individual pace.  It has its own cadence, and this cadence is often out of sync with the fixed routines, prescribed schedules, and programmed learning goals which must inevitably characterize most institutional care for children. 

This series was an attempt to vindicate this view.  It drew on many of the writers that had inspired Jutta and me, including notably, and pretty extensively, John Holt, whose reader-written journal Growing Without Schooling was one of our mainstays.  Parts of it were controversial.  The second programme, on early daycare, was one of the few shows I ever made that provoked serious and sustained criticism from listeners.  After a talk I gave to the Women's University Club of Toronto around the same time, I was accused by one of my auditors of living in Little House on the Prairie, and that pretty well sums up the tenor of the critical letters I got in response to Part Two of The World of the Child.  Like-minded listeners were more enthusiastic, and cassettes of the programmes circulated widely for many years.

It has been thirty-three years since these shows were broadcast, but a lot of the questions they address remain current.  There are also some fascinating people to be met with here, a number of them no longer alive.  These participants were as follows:

Part One: Neil Postman, Neil Sutherland, David Elkind, John Lee, Jerome Kagan, Lloyd de Mause, and John Holt

Part Two: Elliot Barker, PenelopeLeach, Jerome Kagan, Burton While, Otto Weininger, Louise Kaplan, and Marion Thompson

Part Three: Seymour Papert, William Condon, John Holt, Eleanor Duckworth, Jerome Kagan, Richard Katz, Otto Weininger, Stanley Greenspan, and Burton White

Part Four: John Holt, Joseph Chilton Pearce, Valery Suransky, Seymour Papert, Alan Mirabelli, and Bob Glossop