Working as a teacher in an elementary school, one has the privilege to guide a child throughout his physical, psychological and emotional growing path, which will lead him to become an adult with his own identity.
This is the precise reason why I’ve chosen to lead, with the help of a colleague, a small study regarding how the young minds of boys and girls aged 7-11 that attend an elementary school located in the roman suburbs could perceive and describe the word “identity”.
The main goal of this article is not to investigate on how a teacher can help a student build his or her identity, but on how a child can process and express such and abstract and complex concept.
In order to do that, my colleague and I planned a few hours of frontal lectures on the subject for me to give to the second graders and for her to give to the fifth graders to introduce the students to the topic.
Among the oldest there was someone who was already familiar with this term, mostly because they heard it from their parents, an older sibling or on social platforms such as Youtube, Instagram or Tiktok, whilst among the younger ones, no one knew what we were talking about.
The most immediate link made by the kids of both age ranges (7/8 and 10/11) was with our document, the ID card that we all have in our pockets, mainly because it contains the word “Identity” in its name; this link was very interesting, and it allowed us to start from a very simple and summary definition of the term which was subsequently included in most of the small essays they turned in. We can actually read in the majority of these: “A person’s identity for me is my name, my personal information and if I am a boy or a girl”. This statement, a little superficial and grammatically incorrect as it may seem, was written in almost every essay and in my opinion, it shows how the children’s brains are like sponges, ready to absorbe and immediately repropose a received information pretty easily.
Moving past this first level of analysis, the kids got more and more curious, and the number of the aspects observed increased quickly. Some of them asked if you could define “identity” as the way a person likes to dress or what he or she likes, but the most common question, mostly among the youngest was:
“Can my identity be if I decide to be nice to a kid because I like him, and to be rude to another one because I don’t like him?”.
Faced with the apparent banality and naivety of this question, the first reaction as an adult was to smile, but then, when we as teachers had to answer, we hesitated. There is no correct and immediate answer to this question because there is no well-marked definition of what identity is.
It suffices to think of one of the most famous authors of contemporary Italian literature, Luigi Pirandello, to realize that there is nothing simple about this question. In fact, in most of his literary production, the author states that we as humans are not able to present our real selves to the world, and we tend to shield ourselves with “masks” that we put on to mystify our real identity and present a fictitious one to the others.
Trying to explain this complicated subject to the kids, the first link made by them was with superheroes, Batman and Superman in particular. All the students rightly asked: “So Batman and Superman’s identity its not Batman and Superman but Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker?”. After a few minutes of reflection on the subject, we came to the conclusion that one could and should not exclude the other. A kid, we thought, is not just a kid, but he is a student when he is at school, a grandson when he is with his grandparents and a son when he is with his parents.
To conclude this little research, I would like to present through some quotes in anonymous form, some of the most interesting concepts expressed by boys and girls of both age ranges in the essays having this title: What is identity to you?
“To me, a person’s identity is […] the happiness that a person’s smile gives out” (M. 7 years old)
“To me, a person’s identity is what makes a person important” (G. 7 years old)
“Identity means no one is like you, cause you’re unique in your own way” (A. 11 years old)
“To me, a person’s identity is my tastes and my feelings” (G. 11 years old)
“To me, a person’s identity could be the fear of being imperfect” (F. 11 years old)
“To me, a person’s identity is […] equality, we’re all different” (L. 11 years old)
“To me, a person’s identity is his happiness” (E. 7 years old)
Translated into English by Alessandra Biondi.
Cover: Maria Benveduti, Leone, Genoa, 2020.