That was the question I kept asking my son who was crying and fussing nonstop one night many years ago. My pleas went unanswered until I decided to take matters into my own hands and try guessing different solutions. In the end, a warm bottle did the trick.
Now that he’s older, I still harbor this secret hope he’ll just answer the same question rationally (preferably without rolling his eyes or mumbling under his breath “you just don’t get it”). Granted I don’t really ‘get’ teenagers (who does). But to be fair, that’s a really hard question to ask anybody. As Henry Ford once said, “If I had to ask people what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse.’”
That’s probably why I’ve always been suspicious of child participation. I’ve seen my fair share of consultations with precocious adolescents and Malala look-alikes eloquently vindicate a long list of ‘peace-on-earth’ aspirations. Perhaps it’s a bit of secret jealousy of their advanced verbosity (I was never that kind of teenager) that makes me a bit hesitant. Or perhaps it’s the fact that this ambitious wish list reminds me of tasty ingredients of a recipe that will never be made.
Back in Nicaragua, however, I had no choice but to tackle the issue of child participation head on when supporting two autonomous governments develop regional policies for children. I wasn’t thrilled. Yet we ended up introducing a Photographic Point-of-View (POV) exercise, where groups of pre-selected children aged 7 to 13 from different communities were given digital cameras to take pictures of things they liked or not in their communities. These children would then come back and tell us stories about the pictures they took.
The technique is not new. Yet it was quite successful, if you consider that most issues highlighted by the pictures made their way to one of the policies, which was approved in the Southern Caribbean Autonomous Region last December. But what made this experience positive was not necessarily the technique per se, but a combination of factors that were present during the policy-making process in general:
- Simplicity. Almost no instructions were given to children during the exercise (except on how to use the camera – duh). While the children were somehow aware about the importance of the process (our big white SUVs must have given it away), there were no pre-selected topics; no right or wrong. It wasn’t a validating process (“do you like our policies a bit or a lot?”). Instead, children were free to pick any topic/angle they saw fit. In turn, this compelled policy-makers to listen to children on a level that they felt comfortable expressing themselves, rather than making children behave like “small adults” to get their message through.
- Scale. Trends were only noticeable once we were able to amass over 1,700 pictures, which were then curated through a series of co-creation sessions with other children, community leaders, government officials, NGOs etc. Making sense of all these pictures was no walk in the park, though.
- Empathy. This exercise took place in over 50 communities in the both autonomous regions alongside a complex policy-making process led by a coalition of government authorities. This meant that while children were busy taking pictures, government officials were either conducting individual interviews or running focus groups with relevant stakeholders. They also complemented these ethnographic design research with in-depth investigations: from taking part of service trials to engaging in shadowing. One government official, for example, spent a day observing child laborers trying to scrap by some money in the local port. In other words, the pictures resonated because those responsible for making the policy were actively listening as they try to see their region through new lenses.
Following a series of synthesis workshops, those pictures were ‘translated’ into policy topics, many of which are not always explicit in our Strategic Plan. Not surprisingly, urban planning was seen as a key priority. But that’s not just the idea of building (better) parks. Rather it involved issues related to climate change, pollution, degradation. It also entailed fostering opportunities for positive socialization between children and their families, which has implications to how children learn about gender issues, parenting expectations, and social norms. Interestingly, children were also quite warm towards cell phone towers, a hint at the potential of technology for connectivity and building relations to migrant parents.
What I liked about this process was the fact that we never asked what these children wanted out of the policy. Instead we tried to explore creative ways that enabled us to ‘see between the lines’ of what they really valued, not what we thought they want or it’s good for them.
Without this immersive experience, I think a policy-making process runs the risk of boiling down to a “doctor’s knows best” approach, falling in the hands of a bunch of experts who often live in a disconnected bubble of good intentions.
This is a bit like all the advice from veteran mothers I received over the years. For all their good intents, each child (and mother) is different from one another and nothing prepares you for motherhood. It’s all trial and error with lots of challenges and rewards along the way. Developing policies is not that different… with exception, perhaps, of sleepless nights.
Natalia Adler (twitter:nataliaadler19)