Lingering Discourses: Jean Jacque Rousseau’s 18th-Century Images of Mothers, Fathers, and Children

  • Margaret MacDonald Simon Fraser University
  • Magdalena Rudkowski Simon Fraser University
  • Janine Hostettler Schärer Simon Fraser University


Using a critical discourse approach (Fairclough, 2003; Foucault, 1972; Luke, 1997, 2002; Rabinow, 1984; van Dijk, 1993; van Leeuwen, 2008) this paper examines the text and embedded
meaning conveyed in Jean Jacque Rousseau’s novella Émile. This treatise written in the 18th century includes Rousseau’s conceptualization of best practices and a set of educational
guidelines detailing habits to avoid and the necessary combination of
“natural” and “progressive” approaches recommended to raise children as moral citizens. In our analysis we discuss the ways Rousseau uses binary descriptions of girls-boys, mothers-fathers, and learners-tutors separately and in opposition. We go on to situate his novella as an early example of expert advice on parenting, where Rousseau positions himself as an educational expert by simultaneously defining the maternal role in early education and
the role of education in society. We contend that Rousseau’s works are founded on particular beliefs about the source of knowledge and construction of meaning that continues to constrain the formation of authentic partnerships among and between parents and early childhood educators. We argue that this discourse—and, importantly, the values, beliefs, and attitudes it conveys—lingers in Canadian early childhood education learning communities and that the vestiges of these early ideas truncate and unnaturally shape our ideas of parenting, teaching, and learning by socially positioning families and teachers in ways that make it difficult to engage in co-construction
of curriculum. We suggest that by better understanding and deconstructing this discourse we can move our thinking forward and authentically engage in coinquiry.

Author Biographies

Margaret MacDonald, Simon Fraser University
Margaret MacDonald is an associate professor at Simon Fraser University. Her research interests include intergenerational programs, pedagogical documentation, and curriculum development in early childhood education.
Magdalena Rudkowski, Simon Fraser University
Born in Poland, Magdalena Rudkowski is a graduate of the early childhood education bachelor program and masters of early childhood studies program at Ryerson University. She is currently pursuing her Doctoral degree in the curriculum theory and implementation program at Simon Fraser University. Her research interests include early childhood direct experiences in nature and conducting and advocating for participatory research with young children.
Janine Hostettler Schärer, Simon Fraser University
Janine Hostettler Schärer received her MA in educational psychology from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Currently she is a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University. In her thesis she examines children’s transitions from family to child care.