Context is important. This book emphasizes going deeper to understand children and families in the context of their environment and their community. Context can be viewed from a number of lenses. One of them is Bronfenbrenner’s bioecologi- cal theory, which includes culture as one aspect of context. Scholars who create and study developmental theories should always use a cross-cultural lens. Anthro- pologists can help here. Both Rogoff and Hilliard say cultural contexts should be considered when trying to understand individuals and groups—their development, perspectives, and lifestyles. That particular lens, the cultural lens, was viewed as a challenge in the preceding section. Here I want to look at three more lenses through which to look at children in families and communities.

The Family Systems Theory Lens Another way to understand context and use your understanding to work with families is family systems theory. I first encountered this theory when I read Virginia Satir’s Peoplemaking and heard her speak, back in the 1980s. To explain the universality of her

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The Child in Context of Family and Community 15

theory, she used an analogy of the human body—that any surgeon who studies medi- cine can operate on any human in the world because the organs are the same. The theory behind family systems theory is that families may be very different in many ways, but they all have some things in common and that is that they are governed by systems. One such system is communication, and another is rules. All families communicate with each other. How and to what extent differs, but communication is a given. All fami- lies have rules—what they are and how they are carried out is different for each family.

The lens of family systems theory puts the focus on the way the family works rather than on the behavior of any individual in it (Parke & Buriel, 2006). That makes the focus of the family therapist different from that of traditional therapists who work only with individuals. Family members are connected to each other; each one influ- ences the others, and all are influenced by the family system. Understanding those influences and the shifts that take place when changes occur in the family is what guides family therapists. Educators aren’t therapists and shouldn’t be doing therapy. Their job isn’t to diagnose family problems and fix them. Still, educators can find family systems theory useful to further their understandings of how the systems work in each family. Think of the theory as a framework for understanding in a deeper way.

Even though the systems themselves may be the same, they can vary greatly from one family to another in the way they operate. It’s also useful to realize that changes, even small ones, can affect the system and the individuals in it. When edu- cators look at a child through a family system lens, they realize that they can’t work on behavior changes in children all by themselves, because those children are part of family systems. I think back to times I’ve been in teacher meetings where a child’s challenging behavior is being discussed. A missing ingredient of these discussions was the family’s involvement.

Linda Garris Christian (2006) in her article about family systems and their relevance to early educators lists six systems that are useful to understand when working with families. The systems are: boundaries, roles, rules, hierarchy, climate, and equilibrium (see Figure 1.3). She says that all families have these systems, but they look very different from one family to another.

Take boundaries, for example, which relate to limits, togetherness, and separateness—what or who is in or out of the family. I remember an exercise from a workshop I attended where the group was asked by the facilitator to think about the family they grew up in. She asked how many grew up in a large family. When par- ticipants raised their hands, she then questioned them about how they defined a large family and who was in it. Their answers reflected differences in boundaries. One person counted 50 people in her family. She included blood relatives and close others. Her family might have been called a kinship network by some. Another had an even







Figure 1.3 Based on Christian’s view of family systems, there are six systems that are useful to understand when working with families

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larger family, and she included people who were no longer alive. Another person who came from a large family numbered six in her family—herself, her parents, and her three siblings. The boundaries in the families of the first two participants were much looser than those of the third participant as determined by the definition of family members—who was included and who was not.

How emotionally and psychologically close family members are to each other is another part of boundaries. In families where the priority is raising children to be more independent than interdependent, the boundaries are different from those fami- lies where interdependence is a top priority. Christian uses the term enmeshed to label families who are extremely interdependent. I bristled at that word. It seemed judgmen- tal to me. My experience with people I have known who come from families a therapist labeled enmeshed is that they emerged from therapy convinced they had “boundary issues” because they weren’t closer to the middle of the boundaries continuum. Disengaged is the term Christian used for the families on the other end of the continuum. Just think- ing about the cross-cultural views of boundaries in my own family gives me pause. If my mother and mother-in-law had studied to be family systems therapists, I’m pretty sure that my mother would have labeled my mother-in-law’s family as “enmeshed” and my mother-in-law would have called my mother “disengaged.” Having been part of both those families now for a number of years, I think both labels are too harsh. Certainly, put- ting on a cross-cultural lens makes a difference in how one views family boundaries that don’t fit one’s own ideas and experiences.

A danger of using the family systems theory is the temptation to play therapist. Another danger is judging other people’s family systems without regard to your own. Obviously early educators are the product of some kind of family systems, and just as we have to understand our own cultures, we have to understand our own fam- ily systems so we can stop just looking outward. “Know thyself,” said Shakespeare. That’s the lesson here.

Understanding and working with family systems theory is a much bigger and more complex job than just focusing on caring for and educating the developing child. But taking a family-centered approach is more complicated, too. The chal- lenges are great, but the rewards are as well.

All of these mandates to deal with the huge complexity in the program; the child, the family, and the community may seem overwhelming! I have warned more than once to be cautious. Perhaps my warnings are too strong and early educators will put aside who they are and what they know so they can just focus on opening up their minds to what the families they work with know. So at this point, it needs to be said that early childhood educators also have the responsibility to share their professional knowledge and personal beliefs with the families. This may be harder in a cross-cultural context and may take more sensitivity than when working with one’s “own people.” Nevertheless, information sharing has to be a two-way street.

The Whole Child Lens Educators learn from families, and families learn from educators. This issue becomes important when you realize that this book focuses heavily on the social-emotional aspects of development, even though school readiness and cognitive development are in the spotlight at present as more and more children are failing in school—even middle-class ones (Hernandez, 2011). School readiness is, of course, a concern for everybody, but professionals with a child development background often come at it from a different angle than some other professionals and families by recognizing

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The Child in Context of Family and Community 17

that social-emotional development is vitally tied to cognitive development.

Way back when I started in this field, I remember the families who came into the program where I taught wanting their chil- dren to learn to read. The same is true to- day. Family members sometimes arrive in programs much more focused on their chil- dren’s intellect than on their feelings and social abilities. Yet research indicates that matters of the heart are the very founda- tion of mental growth. A book called Toward a General Theory of Love (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000) gives eloquent scien- tific explanations for how emotional ties that link children to others create actual changes in the brain structure leading to stability, health, and the ability to think.

Early care and educational professionals study what has been called “the whole child.” The child is made of mind, body, and feelings, and one system is vitally tied into the others. Though child development books may tease out the parts and put them in separate chapters, in reality, the child is always a whole. No matter how much you want to promote school readiness, you can’t separate the intellect from the emotions.

What part does the body play in school readiness? How often does a parent look into the preschool play yard, see the children having a good time, and think, “How can they learn if all they do is play here?” Carla Hannaford (2005) answers that question in her book Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head. She is clear that children need to move in order to think. The book brings compelling informa- tion from the neurosciences about the relationship of body movement to learning. This is the kind of professional information that early educators can share with par- ents so that families come to understand that care and education in the early years may be different from their own experience in their childhood or their concepts of what school should be like.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Another lens through which to look comes from a theorist whose model relates to the whole child concept. Abraham Maslow (1954) studied successful people instead of those with psychological problems coming up with what he called a hierarchy of needs. His model provides important information for anyone concerned with working with young children and their families. His theory rests on the idea that basic needs must be met for growth to occur. The most basic needs of all are physiological and include air, food, water, and rest. A hungry child is motivated to get food and uses all available energy for that end, energy that well-fed children use for going on to meet higher needs. On the next level up is the need for safety. One way that the safety need can be met in young children is by making their lives predictable. Some children especially find their security in the routines of the day. Change the routine, and feelings of safety disappear. Children crying at separation is another ex- pression of safety needs. The next step up is the need for love and belonging, though with the latest information about the importance of relationships to a child’s brain

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