Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Phenomenology of the Adult-Child Relation

  • Michael A. van Manen
  • Max van Manen
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_89


A phenomenological focus on the meaning and significance of the adult-child relation starts from the question of how the child experiences the relation with the adult and how the adult experiences the relation with the child. Phenomenology explores the immediately lived or pre-reflective dimensions of the relational experience rather than the ways we may already conceptualize, theorize, or interpret adult-child relations. It is a form of inquiry that is rooted in continental philosophy. It aims to grasp the meaning structures of human experiences as lived through in everyday situations, relations, and actions. It is methodologically challenging to determine how young children experience the relations they maintain with adults, especially in infants and young children. The descriptions have to be interpretive and intuitive yet also tentative and informed by psychological and philosophical understandings of the intersubjectivities and intentionalities of the child's relations with others.

Historically, the phenomenological perspective was adopted to free itself from earlier denominational interpretations of the adult-child relation. The term “relation” in the phrase adult-child relation encompasses all those affective and emotional states and the sentient and existential human qualities that exist between an adult and a child. Commonly, the meaning of the term “relation” or “relationship” tends to be taken for granted. According to the OED, the terms “relate” and “relation” derive etymologically from relatus, meaning to bring back, return, and report, and from ferre, meaning to bear and carry. The contemporary dictionary meanings of relation(ship) refer to the connections formed between two or more people or groups based on social interactions and mutual goals, interests, or feelings. Thus, the adult-child relation can be seen as a connection that emerges between parents and children that they continually return to.

Culturally and historically adult-child relations differ empirically and qualitatively in terms of authority, affectivity, closeness, sense of genealogy, and felt responsibility. These relational factors are continually undergoing changes. But the focus here is primarily on the phenomenology of the existentiality of these relations.

The Emergence of the Adult-Child Relation Thematized as Childhood

The emergence of childhood as the development of relational distance between the old and the young arises already in the early work of Johan van den Berg (1956) and in Philip Ariès (1962). Van den Berg documents how by the eighteenth century, the child had become increasingly vulnerable with respect to themes that have to do with adulthood such as sexuality, birth, death, and faith. These “secrets” of adulthood were kept from young people for a gradually expanding period of time, leading to a prolonged childhood and a deferred adulthood. According to van den Berg, the distance between children and adults was created as a result of the increasing complexity of the social order.

In other and less complex times and places, children were perceived simply as miniature adults. They were not yet seen as uniquely and urgently vulnerable due to their young age, innocence, immaturity, or lack of experience. As society and familial relations grew more complex, the young person was infantilized to a state of dependency, and thus a relational distance was created that was named “childhood.” To belong to childhood is to belong “not yet” to adulthood.

Some suggest that adults may no longer know (or wish to know) what it means to stand and act in a mature adult relation with children. Consequently, young people exist in a state of abandonment, a relational and moral vacuum that is neither childhood nor adulthood. The childhood of the theorized child seems to be disappearing, but others have pointed at early texts and art, such as the Grandfather and Grandchild portrait by Ghirlandaio (1490), that show that the adult-child relation does indeed possess historical significance that recognizes the way of being of a child. In the painting the (grand)child clearly seems to experience the relational quality of childhood.

Here follow some selected modalities of thematized adult-child relations.

A Relation of Nearness and Distance

The phenomenology of childhood is in part described by the experience of relational distance between children and adults. The sense of distance can already be observed at the moment of the birth of a child and in the reference to the newborn child as newcomer and as stranger. When a “child” is born, he or she still very much enters our life as a stranger. We do not choose a child as we choose a friend for the qualities that he or she already possesses. And even if such choice would become technologically available to some degree, then the newcomer is still someone who is different, relatively unformed, and a carrier of potential. The adult names this difference. To name a child is the adult’s act of dealing with the distance that this difference creates. In the act of naming, the child is recognized and adopted into the family and community. And in the act of naming, the newcomer and childhood itself is named. But the notion of childhood can only exist in the recognition of the connectedness and duality of the adult-child relation. Childhood and adulthood always implicate each other; they are joined terms of a relational discourse.

There is a socially constructed distance between childhood and adulthood that inevitably brings about misunderstandings, alienation, conflict, and rebellion between the generations. Entire industries, disciplines, and educational institutions have been established with the purpose of dealing with the child’s process of adultus, literally “growing up.” Some may see this as a phenomenon of questionable value to the child, when adults begin to show special interest in childhood that spells trouble for the child – but it also means that there is trouble with adulthood. It means that adulthood has become so complicated and so full of dangers and contradictions that young people can no longer simply grow up in a natural apprentice relation beside older people as was supposedly possible in earlier ages. As the phenomenon of childhood is historically and culturally relativized, the question arises whether and on what basis children still deserve special rights as children.

A Relation of Prematurity

For developmental psychology, the child is someone who “cannot yet do” certain things, not now but later. Classic developmental child study in the tradition of Rousseau-Piaget tends to perceive the child from the perspective of the end phase of adulthood. But from a phenomenological point of view, the scientific empirical data of developmental psychology are not given by nature; there are no natural facts that developmental psychology can offer to educators as guides for educational or child-rearing practice. The adult must orient to where a particular child is now. From the child’s present world, educator or parent must be prepared to assist and help the child in his or her becoming.

The converse terms childhood and adulthood are relational antonyms. In the experience of the child, the adult experiences his or her adultness. The adult-child relation trades on the tensions between maturity and immaturity, sophistication, and innocence. It is a relation of growing up for the child when the relation gradually dissolves as the child gains in cognitive, affective, and moral maturity.

The original and most personal relationship between adult and child is the mother-child and parenting relationship. In his classic text, The Child’s Relations with Others, Merleau-Ponty (1964) describes how initially the child’s relation with others is still undifferentiated as the child is unaware of itself as a separate being. In other words the genesis of the adult-child relation is for the child initially a non-relation. It is not as if at birth there are two separate entities that establish a relation. Rather there exists for the child immediately an undifferentiated prenatal oneness with the maternal body. There is not yet a communicative relation as long as the child remains unaware of itself in its absolute difference. The first child me is still latent and entirely unaware of itself, while the adult me is a me that knows its own limits.

Around 6 months of age, the child, in exploring things with the hand, will touch the other hand. And thus, suddenly, the child learns to distinguish between the body (the touching hand) as immediately felt introceptively and the body (the touched hand) as discovered and observed extroceptively.

A Relation of Separateness and Inwardness

The child discovers its separateness when, for example, smiling at the mother or father in the mirror and then being startled when hearing the voice of the mother or father issued not from the specular image but from the physical body of the parent. A little later, the child becomes aware of his or her own observable body, when seeing the specular appearance of its own image in the mirror. Through the specular image, the child notices that he or she is visible for himself and herself as well as for others. By the second and the third year of age, the child becomes more sensitive to the look of the adult with whom the child experiences a certain self-conscious relation. This is also the time that the child senses his or her own independence and the capacity to say “no.”

One can infer two phenomenologies of separateness between childhood and adulthood through the civilizing process of morals and manners. First, children are separated from adults since they lack the consciousness of an economy of inwardness (e.g., the young child is still allowed to show his or her emotions openly). Second, children are kept separate from adults when childlike feelings have to go into hiding or “underground” (e.g., the child may learn to feel shameful about sexual discoveries). Children are “taught” that certain behaviors and feelings are distasteful, shameful, repulsive, and disapproved. All kinds of commands and prohibitions, do’s and don’ts, are more likely to arouse in children certain anxieties and therefore the inclination to render these acts private.

Thus, children learn when and how to feel shame and embarrassment about things that they are to keep suppressed. And this has an important consequence for their relations with others, especially for their close relations of intimacy. Elias points out how this increased social proscription of many impulses necessarily increases the distance between the personality structure and the behavior of adults and children. What we see is the effect of the function of manners and customs which separates the young person (childhood) from father and mother (adulthood) through the invisible wall created by hidden feelings, driven to an experience of psychological, social, and generational distance through such processes as social rules, praise, and punishment (Elias 1978).

A Relation of Pedagogy: Child-Rearing and Education

Within the educational and child-rearing context, the adult-child relation is the parent-child, teacher-student, or pedagogical relation. The concept of the pedagogical relation was meant to arbitrate over the question whether the experience of pedagogy – parenting, teaching, childcare – is a primordial human experience, thus requiring an independent discipline for study, or whether it is merely an aspect of general processes of socialization whereby young people are initiated into the social order that surrounds them. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) was the first to propose that a science of education or pedagogy can only find its real starting point by studying the relation between the adult and the child.

Herman Nohl (1967), a student of Dilthey, described the pedagogical relation as an intensely experienced relation, characterized by three aspects: First, the pedagogical relation is a very personal relation animated by a special quality that spontaneously emerges between adult and child and that can be neither managed nor trained nor reduced to any other human interaction. Second, the pedagogical relation is an intentional relation wherein the intent of the adult is always determined in a double direction: by caring for a child as he or she is and by caring for a child for what he or she may become. Third, the pedagogical relation is an oriented relation; this means that the adult must constantly be able to interpret and understand the present situation and experiences of the child and anticipate the moments when the child in fuller self-responsibility can increasingly participate in the culture.

For the student, the pedagogical relation with the educator is more than a means to an end (to become educated or grown-up); the relation is an event that has significance in and of itself. The relation to a real teacher, someone in whose presence the child or young person experiences his or her evolving identity, is possibly more profound and more consequential than the experience of relations of friendship, love, and so forth. Students may always feel indebted for the rest of their lives to a real and admired teacher, even though the stuff that they learned from this person may have lost its relevance. In part, this may be due to the fact that what is “received” from a great teacher is less a particular body of knowledge or set of skills than the way in which this subject matter was represented or embodied in the person of this teacher, his or her enthusiasm, self-discipline, dedication, commitment, and so forth.

Pedagogy can be generally described as distinguishing what is good or right from what is bad or wrong in our ways of acting and interacting with children. Of course, in our everyday living with children, we do not always know how to distinguish actively and reflectively what is good from what is not good (or less good) for children. In certain situations and predicaments, we may question and doubt ourselves or admit that we may not know what is best for this child or these children. The point is that this doubt and uncertainty belongs to pedagogy and shows us the profoundly ethical nature of pedagogical thinking and acting (van Manen 2015). Without this ethical uncertainty, pedagogy would be reduced to a set of techniques, recipes, or rules. Teaching, parenting, and caring for children are never simple affairs that can be handled by means of rules and recipes. Situational predicaments that can be “solved” by techniques and procedures are not ethical predicaments. And so, pedagogy is both the tactful ethical practice of our actions and the doubting, questioning, and reflecting on our actions and practices in living with children.

A Relation of Possibility

Children come to us bearing a gift: the gift of experiencing the possible. Children are children because they are in the midst of the primal process of becoming. Children, who are not already resigned to the fate of being born into a world of powerlessness and misery that leaves no hope for them, experience life as possibility: anything can happen.

In sharing his or her life with this child, the adult cannot avoid but become an example. This imitational process (mimesis) is the meaning of learning. In early English to “learn” meant to teach as well as to learn. A teacher could learn (teach) a child to learn something. As an adult, one embodies possible ways of being for the child. Merleau-Ponty describes how “mimesis is the ensnaring of me by the other, the invasion of me by the other; it is that attitude whereby I assume the gestures, the conducts, the favorite words, the ways of doing things of those whom I confront … It is a manifestation of a unique system, which unites my body, the other’s body, and the other himself” (1964, p. 145). Conversely, I see the child trying on my gestures, my ways of seeing and doing things, my ways of reacting, and my ways of spending time. And as I see that happening, I am confronted with my own doubts. Is this the way I want my child to act and be? And if not, is it the way I want myself to act and be?

Historically and culturally, the world contains many possibilities of living and being. Children encounter the world through friends, schools, media, neighbors, and digital technologies and through our mediation. But children find their own uniqueness and identity through personal exploration, choice, and commitment. This is what Hannah Arendt (1958) described as the fact of “natality” that children are constantly born into the world and must be allowed to renew the world. How can the adult safeguard this newness for the growing child? Children cannot just be expected to discover a life. They must also be allowed to act, experiment, and create themselves. Adults have lost this neotenic openness, but in this too, they can learn from the child. Neoteny is the retention by adults of childlike qualities: to remain open to the new and human potentialities. Agamben points out that, in evolutionary terms, adults inherited the physiology of infancy: the hairless skin and fetal features of the eternal child. But because of this neotenicy, the adult is granted the possibility of openness and potentiality: to make the impossible possible (1995, pp. 95–98).

A Relation of Violence and Abandonment

A critically significant relation between adults and children is probably most pointedly named a relation of violence and abandonment (Giroux 2003). This is a highly complex and extremely problematic dimension of the experience of childhood of young people who, because of their young age, belong to the biology of childhood but whose social and political circumstances actually rob them of the social, cultural, and pedagogical benefits of a sheltered childhood.

From a critical perspective, childhood can be regarded as an oppressive socially constructed category aimed to regulate and commercially exploit the educational and social lives of children. Keeping children stuck in theories and constraining categories of “childhood” may make it difficult to treat their expressed views and lived experiences with respect and dialogic openness and integrity. The terrible truth is that, globally, every day thousands of children are losing their parents and experience being exploited by adults and abandoned by the societal institutions that ought to protect them.

There exists a relation of violence for millions of children who are orphaned by wars, suffering from abuse, disease, or starvation, or recruited as child soldiers in distant lands. We know that there are street children of 5 and 6 years of age who are learning to survive in metropolitan areas without any medical care, illiterate, physically and sexually exploited, and exposed to the excesses of violent drug culture. For them, the adult-child relation is an empty existential category without promise or pedagogical significance.


  1. Agamben, G. (1995). Idea of prose. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  2. Arendt, H. (1958). The human condition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  3. Ariès, Ph. (1962). Centuries of childhood. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  4. Elias, N. (1978). The civilizing process: The history of manners. New York: Urizen Books.Google Scholar
  5. Giroux, H. (2003). The abandoned generation. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). The primacy of perception and other essays. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Nohl, H. (1967). Ausgewählte pädagogische Abhandlungen. Paderborn, Germany: Ferdinand Schöningh.Google Scholar
  8. Van den Berg, J. H. (1956/1970). Metabletica of leer der veranderingen: Beginselen van een historische psychologie. Nijkerk: Callenbach.Google Scholar
  9. Van Manen, M. (2015). Pedagogical tact: Knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. London: Left Coast Press/Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of AlbertaEdmontonCanada