Lessons About Growing Up in Working-Class and Immigrant Families From New Experts: Kids

May 14, 2020

Professor Wendy Luttrell discusses the surprising findings of her new book and what we can learn from kids about childhood, especially in the time of COVID-19.

Professor Wendy Luttrell and the cover of her book, "Children Framing Childhoods" (Photos courtesy of Luttrell)
Professor Wendy Luttrell and the cover of her book, "Children Framing Childhoods" (Photos courtesy of Luttrell)

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

In 2003, Professor Wendy Luttrell (Urban Education) gave cameras to children in Worcester, Massachusetts. Most of the kids came from working-class immigrant families. Luttrell wanted to see how they’d use photos to represent their immigrant status. 

But the kids redefined what the project was about, focusing instead on caregiving and caregivers. They photographed their mothers, their teachers, and treasured objects they’d received from loved ones, from sneakers to stuffed animals. Those images reinforced relationships “with people they respect or felt respected by,” Luttrell said. The children’s pictures conveyed the messages that mattered to them, “regardless of what they thought the researchers were interested in.” 

Luttrell compiled the results in a book, Children Framing Childhoods, and created a website to showcase the photos and the children’s commentary, along with videos the kids shot a few years later as teenagers. “Too much of urban education research is preoccupied with problems, brokenness, stigma, and blame,” Luttrell says in a video on the website. This research provides “an alternative vision, a vision grounded in diverse, working-class children’s photographs of their school, family, and community

What Luttrell learned through this research offers some insights into how kids may be responding to the COVID-19 crisis. “Kids are making sense of this and actively trying to figure it out in ways that are on their own terms,” Luttrell said. “Rather than adults jumping in with our assumptions about how kids might be feeling, whether it’s scared or anxious or whatever, we should see this as a time of really listening and learning from kids, rather than overparenting.” 

The 10-year-olds she worked with in Worcester “had very sophisticated ideas about the choreography of their everyday world. They took a great deal of pleasure in showing their expertise about just how complicated their daily routine was: how they fed themselves in the morning and got themselves to school and managed homework when they came back, and all the things that went into their parents’ jobs and schedules. Those are the kinds of details they were fully aware of and saw themselves as participants in. I think the same applies to the changing landscape in everybody’s lives with COVID — understanding that kids are experts, they’re finely tuned. Parents should be aware of their acute sensitivity to managing.”

But Luttrell also noted that the pandemic is playing out very differently in poor and working-class families than in middle-class households. In affluent homes, busy parents who normally outsource ordinary caregiving tasks like childcare or tutoring may find joy in a slowed-down world where they have time to play games, bake cookies, or teach their child how to ride a bike — despite the challenges of supervising online learning or working from home themselves. “I read it in the paper, parents saying, ‘This time of hanging out with my kids is the best time I ever can remember,’” Luttrell said. 

But in wage-poor families, there’s much more anxiety and financial pressure: “Those parents are working as home health aides or in nursing homes. They’re the people who work at Price Chopper, at food distribution places, as bus drivers. The exposure to danger is scary. And yet it’s all part of the tremendous unevenness and inequality in society and in how this virus has played out.” She added that the pandemic has also brought new recognition to the essential work done by two groups of women — mothers and teachers — that the children in her book honored over and over in their photos and comments. 

Luttrell is a sociologist in the field of critical childhood studies, which she says in some ways is “a critique of traditional child development” perspectives. Instead of looking at child development from an adult-centered view, “what I’ve always been interested in is how kids understand their own development, not where they fit along a spectrum or how they can be fixed.”  Context is of paramount importance in critical childhood studies as well: “Children are not a monolithic group. They have wildly different experiences of development depending on gender and race and culture and whether they are living through COVID, as opposed to a child of the same age three years ago.” 

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.