Child, Youth, and Family Studies, Department of


Date of this Version

May 2003


Keynote Address at Early Childhood Institute, The Culture of Childhood in Kansas City, Kansas City, Missouri. Later submitted as chapter, "Relationship-Based Care for Young Children in Reggio Emilia and North America," published in Next Steps in Teaching the Reggio Way, Editor Joanne Hendrick, Merrill-Prentice Hall Publishing Company, 2004.


A culture of childhood is a shared vision – an agreed upon vision – of the needs and rights of children, including ideas about how the people of the community can collectively nurture them and at the same time be renewed by them. In other words, it is a set of values, beliefs, and practices that people have created to guide their way of nurturing young children and their families. The vision is about investing in young children and investing in the supports and relationships that children need to learn and grow, both for the reason that children carry our future and because they carry our hopes and dreams for the future.

These hopes and dreams begin with birth. Sensitive, emotionally available parents create the framework for interaction with their children by responding to the baby’s cues, engaging the baby in mutual gazes, and imitating the baby. The baby, born with a primary ability to share emotions with other human beings eagerly joins the relationship dance. The intimate family circle soon widens. Providers, teachers, and directors of early childhood programs become significant figures in children’s lives—implicit or explicit partners in a "relationship dance" (Edwards & Raikes, 2002).

These close relationships are believed to be critical to healthy intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development in childhood and adolescence as well. These conclusions have been documented by diverse fields of science, ranging from cognitive science to communication studies and social and personality psychology. Close relationships contribute to security and trust, promote skill development and understanding, nurture healthy physical growth, infuse developing self-understanding and self-confidence, enable self-control and emotion regulation, and strengthen emotional connections with others that contribute to prosocial motivation (Dunn, 1993; Fogel, 1993; Thompson, 1996). Furthermore, many studies showing how relationship dysfunction is linked to child abuse and neglect, aggression, criminality, and other problems involving the lack of significant human connections (Shankoff & Meisels, 2000).

In extending the dance of primary relationships to new relationships, a childcare teacher can play a primary role. The teacher makes the space ready--creating a beautiful place that causes everyone to feel like dancing. Gradually, as the dance between them becomes smooth and familiar, the teacher encourages the baby to try out more complex steps and learn how to dance to new compositions, beats, and tempos. As the baby alternates dancing sometimes with one or two partners, sometimes with many, the dance itself becomes a story about who the child has been and who the child is becoming, a reciprocal self created through close relationships.