Reflecting on Children’s Voices: Creating space to listen

Image: Brock Brown, Feelings of Black Saturday, 2009, acrylic on paper, 29.6 x 41.8 cm, The Cunningham Dax Collection, 2015.0091

Last week I had the privilege of convening the ‘Children’s Voices in Contemporary Australia’ symposium with CHE Education and Outreach Officer Penelope Lee, in partnership with The Dax Centre at The University of Melbourne. Voice is a rich concept for exploring experiences of self; voices speak in words, but they also convey emotions wordlessly through timbre, rhythm, pitch and intonation. They leave our bodies, but retain the intricate make-up of the selves who produce them. What do children’s voices tell us about how, collectively, they are faring, and how well we, as a nation, hear what they have to say?

This event brought together interdisciplinary researchers, practitioners, clinicians, educators, artists, performers and individuals with lived experience to explore the status of children and young people’s voices and their ability to tell their own stories in contemporary Australia. We considered the concept of voice as an instrument of personal and political empowerment, asking what is at stake in the ability to narrate one’s own experience. We also focused on how children with communication challenges can tell their own stories. A key goal of the day was also to deepen our awareness of how our collective understanding of emotions helps and hinders our ability to support children and young people to own and express their experiences.

Emotions were everywhere on the day. The potential for children’s wellbeing to be enhanced through ownership and expression of their experiences was considered from diverse perspectives, ranging from verbal lore, authoring written narratives, digital storytelling, performance, visual art and engagement with music, to children’s involvement in shaping urban spaces for their own use. Historians Mary Tomsic and Jordy Silverstein presented a paper that highlighted the contentious topic of children in detention. Often thought too young to be politically aware, the refugee children on Nauru were shown to understand all too well the politicised nature of their voices on their Facebook page. It was equally important on the day to consider how the emotional responses of adults can shape children’s self-expression; as Dorothy Scott cautioned in her extraordinarily touching and thoughtful welcome, “our cognitive cocoons and our own adult emotional responses […] can lead not only to us projecting on to the child what their meaning of an experience might be, but also to censoring the child’s meaning.” Contexts that might shape children’s expression in this way, which were considered during the symposium, include mothers in prison, the education system and police interviews. The lingering presence of past emotional regimes in contemporary interactions was also addressed, especially in different forms of legal testimony but also within the education system. Comments and feedback from symposium participants emphasised their appreciation of the ‘the focus on listening. Real listening not superficial listening’, and the message to ‘authentically listen to children and […] stop imposing our adult […] values’. The need ‘to listen to children as current, not just future citizens’, of not ‘wait[ing] for young people to be adults – they want their voices heard and actioned now’, was a recurrent theme throughout the day.

Youth panel from the Victorian Student Representative Council at 'Children's Voices.'
Youth panel from the Victorian Student Representative Council at ‘Children’s Voices.’

The symposium also generated significant emotions in the audience, especially in the uncontested highlight of the day for many, the Young People’s Panel, variously described in feedback as ‘exceptional’, ‘brilliant’, ‘amazing’, ‘moving’ and ‘inspiring’. Seven young presenters aged from 11 to 19 years shared their experiences of voice, and the difference that being heard had made to them. For the audience, ‘[it was] awesome to listen to a range of voices children have’, to experience ‘the lack of a patronising view of children and young people’, to receive the ‘amazing knowledge and wisdom [children and young people have] when they are given opportunity to have a voice’. While all of the young people’s presentations were enthralling (and young Indigenous spokesperson Brent Watkins’ Acknowledgment of Country is included here, as is Burundi 2016 Victorian Young Achiever Fablice Manirakiza’s rousing conclusion to the day, which had the audience dancing in the aisles), two were extraordinarily poignant. Cameron, 11 years old, has been diagnosed with autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He cares deeply that people tend only to recognise his moments of annoyance and frustration because he struggles to express his positive emotions. Twelve-year-old Jayelan, who also has autism, has only been able to speak with his physical voice in the last 18 months, but his presentation left no doubt that those first words were life-changing. Both boys were powerful advocates for children everywhere who need us to make space for them to express themselves. This message certainly resonated with the audience; as one participant said, when describing the value of the day, “children’s voices were given space, time and respect.”

Aretha and Fablice, two young performers at the symposium.
Aretha and Fablice, two young participants in the symposium.

Also noted repeatedly in feedback was the excitement, curiosity and pleasure that was generated as we listened to each other across disciplinary, professional and personal divides. This was especially the case for the keynote presentation by neuroscientist Jonathan Delafield-Butt (University of Strathclyde), who spoke on the embodied, narrative nature of human communication as it develops even before birth, and well before the acquisition of language. Despite the potentially daunting task (for an audience primarily comprised of non-scientists) of engaging with a neuroscientific perspective on the development of children’s communicative abilities and the organising role played by emotion in this process, his talk was enthusiastically cited by many as a highlight.

Generating emotion amongst participants was in fact one of the goals for the day. It would be a mistake to regard this strategy as secondary, a bonus to the more serious, primary business of gaining and sharing knowledge and making connections. As many presenters at the symposium made clear, strong emotional bonds between infants and young children with their caregivers are vital not only for emotional wellbeing, but for developing higher cognitive skills. What is less commonly acknowledged is that connections between emotions and learning do not vanish when we reach adulthood; we continue to learn best when we are emotionally engaged. Given that the symposium was described by attendees as ‘marvellous’, ‘brilliant’ and even ‘stupendous’, the experience of combined emotional and intellectual engagement on the day will ideally promote reflection on how we can produce environments where children will also engage happily and productively with the world around them.

Giving emotions an active role, rather than incidental status, during the symposium has further important ramifications for how research is shared with the community. Traditionally, activism has been the locus for emotional engagement with social issues. That engagement is too often burdened with anger, frustration and wasted energy, while academic research is cast as a site for calm, logical insight, not to be compromised by emotional input. I would like to think that Friday’s symposium represented a step towards breaking down not only that distinction, but also the partitioning of practitioners’ insights, and, crucially, individual lived experience, from research. Acknowledging and reflecting on emotions will assist us in effectively channelling energies towards the desired shared outcome: working together on behalf of children to support them to flourish.

Keynote Presentation

Young People’s Panel

If you are interested in being involved with future developments arising from this symposium, please contact me on

Melissa Raine was a CHE Associate Investigator in 2015. She received her PhD from The University of Melbourne in 2003. Her thesis explored writing on food in fifteenth-century Middle English texts , focusing on how food shaped medieval understandings of embodiment and selfhood within the diverse and overlapping domains of social standing, health, religious observation and physical pleasure. Her interest in the relationship between corporeality, textuality and theories of self, as well as her interdisciplinary approach, continue into her current project, ‘Affect and The Child’s Voice in Middle English Narrative’.  She tweets @meraine65.

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