This morning I read a delightful academic paper, with an even more delightful backstory. The lead author, Sabine Little, is a professor at the University of Sheffield, specializing in “Languages Education,” especially multilingualism. Her native language is German. So when the Littles had a child, they naturally decided to raise him to be bilingual, with Sabine speaking German, and Toby’s father his native English. When Toby was 4, however, he asked his mother to stop speaking German to him. Then, when he was 6, he asked her to resume, as he had realized he wanted to learn German. He also asked if they could “do research together.”
I imagine that at the age of 6, Toby’s idea of “research” was that it was something potentially worth his attention because he knew it was important to Sabine. As a mother, I know how it feels when your child decides to try something because they see you doing it, although my own memories along these lines were much less consequential. I’m thinking of when my younger son was 2 or 3 and wanted to try some of the foods he saw me eating. His initial reactions to red salsa were pretty amusing, but in the end favorable; his conclusions about romaine lettuce went the other direction. Nevertheless, I was flattered.
Toby and Sabine, however, were making a much larger commitment. As they explain in the paper, “Through a joint research diary, we regularly and rigorously chronicled both language-related conversations and our emotions linked to the process of bringing back the heritage language.” Over two and a half years, that research diary ended up at 83 typed pages, or 25,450 words. And, “Since Toby had proposed the study himself, his desire to be involved in all processes, from ethical review to writing up, to presenting the research at conferences (Little and Little, 2019), was a guiding principle of our work. We knew that both our voices needed to be included as equitably as possible.”
The paper describes how they worked to jointly create a “space” where they could be reflective together, which included learning to understand each other’s perspectives. Here’s where it connects with my own research topic, different types of “immersion” in different “worlds” or contexts. Usually, in our intimate relationships, we’re “fully immersed” during our interactions, and if we take time later to reflect on what happened, we usually do that on our own or with the help of a friend or sometimes a therapist. Here, though, they created a process to do their reflection together.
And then, when Toby was 10 (he’s now 12), they wrote it all up. (I was impressed that Sabine found supporting citations even for the usefulness of taking notes on scraps of paper!)
Today their paper was published, in Qualitative Research: It’s “An un/familiar space: Children and parents as collaborators in autoethnographic family research,” by Sabine Little and Toby Little. Here it is! No paywall.
I can’t help but think that this experience, and his mother’s dedication, have given Toby all the skills he needs to be a thoughtful and insightful member of his community and wherever his paths may lead him. Toby was probably pretty extraordinary to begin with, though – after all, the project was his idea.
Most of us can’t share our work with our children quite so directly, or fruitfully – most of our kids would never ask! But all of us can learn from Sabine’s willingness to build a “space” that treated her son as a very special colleague, whose ideas, experiences, and words were worthy of respect.
I’ll close by quoting some of Toby’s observations:
“In the family, everybody needs to trust each other, and listen to opinions and ideas. For us, that worked, because we already had that. If the family doesn’t already have that, they would need to work at that. Parents need to talk to the child and always tell them the truth about their own feelings, even if the child doesn’t like it. And children need to be able to do the same thing. In the beginning, we didn’t ask each other straight away how we felt about something; we would write down what we said, and then talk about it later. Now, we just ask straight away. At the beginning, if you asked me why something makes me grumpy, that would just make me angrier. But now I’m older, and we are used to talking about how we feel. I think for younger children, it’s better to wait a bit, so they can think about what to say. It takes a little while to work out how you feel about stuff. So, after you thought about it, you can talk about it, and it gives you their perspective, and then you can work it out together.”