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Child Science and International Conference in Bergen (1992)

I recently discovered that an article I wrote long ago still has a number of readers. This essay, "Child ecology: a theoretical basis for solving children's problems," is posted in Koby's Kodomogaku on CRN's English website. I am very happy to find out that others still find it relevant, and this made me think of the International Conference in Bergen, Norway in May 1992 that was the background for it.

This article is a summary of "Children at Risk," the special address that I was invited to give at the conference by the government of Norway. In many respects, this conference has had a profound effect on my current work and perspective. It was the occasion that prompted my decision to systematize my thoughts into what I had been thinking of as "kodomogaku" or Child Science, establish Japanese Society of Child Science, and promote this approach as way of helping to solve "child issues" at a time when they were not referred to as "issues."

This month, I would like to present my current thoughts on Child Science with respect to the international conference in Bergen and child ecology. I welcome any feedback or comments that you may have.

The Bergen international conference "Children at Risk" in 1992 was cosponsored by the Norwegian government and the Norwegian Center for Child Research. In commemoration of the 1989 ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, it was an interdisciplinary conference that covered a wide range of issues and drew scholars, researchers, and professionals from around the world. Dr. Hiroshi Azuma, Professor Emeritus, The University of Tokyo, and several others attended from Japan.

Speeches were given at the opening ceremony by Princess Martha Louise, Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway's first woman prime minister, and Grete Berget, Minister of Children and Family Affairs, who became well known even in Japan for breastfeeding in parliament and representatives of international organizations such as WHO and UNICEF.

In translating "Norwegian Center for Child Research," I decided to translate "child research" as "kodomogaku" in Japanese because the conference's comprehensive, interdisciplinary perspective was so similar to my own kodomogaku or Child Science. According to the approach of Child Science, children are born as biological beings and raised as social human beings. Child Science attempts to bring together insights from the humanities and the natural sciences in order to synthesize both and arrive at a comprehensive, inclusive, interdisciplinary, and cross-disciplinary knowledge and understanding of children. And I felt this more strongly than ever at the Bergen conference.

Nearly ten years after the conference, a course called Child Study was initiated at London University with the same approach. We can see this as part of a trend at the beginning of the 21st century toward interdisciplinarity in the sciences, which have been fundamentally reductionist. This trend is especially marked in the human sciences and has been long entrenched in the United Kingdom. To my mind, Child Science is the human science of children.

Child Science, as I conceive it, is based on at least three tenets. First, how should children, who are biological beings, be considered comprehensively and from a totality of perspectives? Second, how should all aspects of a child's life and development be considered from the viewpoint of brain science? Third, how should children as social human beings be examined from the perspective of child ecology?

Systems and information theory are crucial to Child Science because, as mentioned above, they bring people in the natural sciences and those in the humanities to a mutual understanding. As biological beings, the child is organized at a cellular level according to genetic information from the parents, which makes up the organs and then the entire human body. The neuronal network of the brain ensures bodily function, and programs of the mind and body are set in motion by information.

When information turns on the program of the body that moves a hand, for example, the neuronal network of the brain begins to work and the infant moves her hand. When information of some sort turns on the program of the mind for smiling, the fetus will break into a smile. The infant smiles when touched playfully, the elementary school child laughs at cartoons and the senior high school student laughs at rakugo--all of these involve the development of the program of the mind.

Systems and information theory can be effectively applied not only to the physical growth of children, but also in thinking about mental and emotional development. The fetus which starts out as a fertilized egg develops the basic body systems before birth and is born with the basic programs of the mind and body to move them. After birth, information from a new living environment not only puts the basic programs to work, but also creates complex programs of the body that combine them as well as programs of the mind for kindness, joy, laughter, crying, anger, fear and thinking, learning, and remembering. In fact, human development may be described as precisely this process of the brain creating the complex and active programs of human adults by putting the basic programs into motion and combining them.

As for the fetus smiling, as mentioned above, this is one way in which the basic program of smiling works. A baby caressed by the mother will make a sound and smile. The mother's facial expression and the rhythm and pitch of her voice function as information in this basic program. In other words, smiling indicates that this basic program has been combined with the program of sensitivity and intelligence capable of sensing the mother's gentleness and love. When elementary school students laugh at cartoons and junior and senior high school students laugh at rakugo, this indicates a more complicating function in that the program of the mind has become combined with an even higher level of intelligence.

Furthermore, looking at child ecology in terms of systems and information theory, we see that children live, develop and grow to adulthood in the mini-ecosystem of the home, the meso-ecosystem of day care centers and schools, and then the macro-ecosystems of local society and the nation. Human beings exist in each of these ecosystems. But these ecosystems are also made up of biological factors such as plants and animals and physical and chemical factors such as air, water, and soil, and the waste produced by daily life and manufacturing as well as information of various kinds in society and culture and particularly the media. These all exist as eco-factors which constitute a kind of sea in which children are immersed and live. These factors might even be classified as matter and information.

Children need the physical matter of nutrition for physical growth, and they need information for mental and emotional development, which is provided by the media, nurturing at home, and education at day care centers, kindergartens, and schools. Children need good nutrition and good information.

With this in mind, at the international conference at Bergen, I made an appeal for the concept of child ecology as a way to understand children as social beings under the rubric of Child Science in order to prevent "children at risk."

After the international conference, we stayed at a hotel isolated in a beautiful fjord located two hours by bus and another two hours or so from Bergen by boat. With delegates who had come from all over the world, we discussed two subjects. One was the idea of launching an interdisciplinary magazine journal on Child Science called "Childhood." The other idea was bringing together scholars, researchers and professionals concerned about children's issues around the world. As a result, my presentation entitled "Child Ecology" was given the honor of publication in the inaugural issue of "Childhood." As for the Internet network, this was realized after I retired from the National Children's Hospital. As you all know, with the support of Benesse Corporation, CRN launched its Japanese- and English-language websites and then later, our Chinese-language website and has continued to expand.

My stay in Norway had been a very fruitful one, but I had to return to Japan right away. A colleague and I chartered a small seaplane to return to Bergen. It took off smoothly, gliding over the calm water of the fjord in front of the hotel, skimming mountains still snowcapped in May, and crossed several fjords before landing next to Bergen airport. Then I hopped a plane to London where my trip came to an end. This trip remains a wonderful memory to this day.

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