The myriad ways children manage and express their feelings and emotions is the subject of the new book “Don’t Use Your Words! Children’s Emotions in a Networked World,” by Jane Juffer, Cornell professor of English.
The book focuses on children ages 5-9, as Juffer engages cultural studies and media studies in underlining the differences in how children are taught and expected – and how they prefer or need – to express themselves.
“I’m not an expert in child development or child psychology,” Juffer said, “but I try to create a kind of discursive map that brings all these elements together to try and explain what is shaping kids right now.”
Examining the role of television programming and other influential media, and of parents, teachers and therapists conveying expectations for behavior, Juffer argues for kids’ own agency to speak for themselves, even in ways outside of the lines drawn by those expectations.
“There is a gap between how adults say kids should express themselves and how kids want to express themselves,” she said. “What inspired me was my younger son’s struggles when he was beginning kindergarten. It was clear he was having a hard time participating and processing what his teacher was asking him to do; it wasn’t resonating with him. Through volunteering, and observing him and other kids as well, I could see they were feeling very constrained.”
What was not enabled, she said, was “the need to move. I moved him into the Montessori school, where the pedagogy is based on letting the kids move while they’re learning.”
She cites “well-meaning adults trying to say, ‘Use your words, tell how you feel.’ I realized as a parent that doesn’t always work.”
Bodily expression, she said, “shouldn’t be denigrated. That shouldn’t be socialized out of them.”
After laying out her theoretical framework and media studies scholarship that her argument “is both indebted to and departs from,” Juffer presents the rest of book in three sections: on kids’ affective responses to political situations; on children’s television; and on digital literacy.
In the first few chapters, Central American children, just released from detention centers on the U.S.-Mexico border, produce drawings of their experience with immigration policy (“That is a powerful means of communication, as well,” Juffer said); and young American schoolchildren, in a class exercise, write to Donald Trump during and after the 2016 campaign.
A chapter in the television section looks at the Cartoon Network show “Steven Universe” and how, Juffer writes, “the show and its fandom speak to the creativity of kids who occupy precarious positions in the contemporary U.S. [as] members of blended, mixed-race, mixed-legal-status and/or gender-nonconforming families.”
The section “The Limits of Digital Literacy” looks at the potential of the internet and online gaming for children’s expression.
“What is the potential for these spaces for kids that involve not using words? These are important places where kids express their feelings to each other, without adults,” Juffer said. “In ‘Minecraft,’ it’s a very expressive exclamatory language, with symbols and emojis. My takeaway is that parents and teachers shouldn’t automatically condemn these games, and to not project our assumptions on them. These are viable forms of communication.”
The cultural production of children inspired by their exposure to media includes fan art and internet memes, Juffer said.
“A lot of people see the need for creativity and movement and having a wide range of expression,” she said. “There are progressive educators who say, ‘It’s OK if your kid doesn’t read in kindergarten. They’ll catch up eventually.’ There are these alternative voices that I hope people can give credence to. … We read so much about kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and being on the spectrum, and I’m hoping to encourage parents and educators to not immediately seek a diagnosis but explore alternative needs for expression.”
Juffer also teaches in the Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at Cornell; her courses have included cultural studies, Latino studies and feminist theory.
Her books include “At Home With Pornography: Women, Sex and Everyday Life” (1998), “Single Mother: The Emergence of the Domestic Intellectual” (2006) and “Intimacy Across Borders: Race, Religion and Migration in the U.S. Midwest” (2013).