The problem of treating young people as children – the Caterpillar to Butterfly Fallacy.

Published in Personalised Education journal, 2011.

There are a number of reasons why it is difficult to get adults to treat the views of young people seriously. And because of this syndrome we have problems in convincing many adults to accept a truly personalised education that responds to what the young person wants and needs.

The Fallacy

One error is what I have labelled the Caterpillar to Butterfly Fallacy. To explain that I have to say a little about caterpillars and butterflies first.

When I was younger I would sometimes find myself in fusty museums. Some of these would have glass fronted cases containing displays of butterflies all neatly pinned down and labelled. The butterflies were beautiful but I could never gather up much enthusiasm for the idea of killing them in order to pin them in cases. However the people who did this were clearly impressed with the qualities of butterflies such that they wanted to collect them.

In all the places I visited I never saw a collection of caterpillars. Caterpillars are seen by many as a necessary nuisance (they eat stuff in your garden) but the transformation via the chrysalis phase means that the adult version of the caterpillar (the butterfly) is valued as beautiful and of specific worth.

It appears that many adults have a similar view of the transformation that is supposed to happen when moving to adulthood. The child (caterpillar) is a necessary nuisance that will eventually transform into a fully-functioning adult (butterfly) – and it is the latter that matters in society. One interesting phenomenon here is the use of language that separates out young people (children) from real persons (adults). Just as we recognise that caterpillars are a distinct phase and need treating differently to butterflies, so by labelling those under 18 as children and those over 18 as persons there is the basis for discrimination.

Soon, via the Raising of the Participation Age, all young people under 18 will be compelled to be in education or training. Somehow there is the assumption that there is a complete distinction between a person under 18 (not allowed to make decisions for themselves) and the over 18s who are free to decide things for themselves. By using a different label for a young person (child) there is the assumption that this phase of life (caterpillar phase) has to be treated differently from the phase of being real persons (butterflies). Children can then be assumed to be unable to make sensible decisions about what they need to learn since they are given a different label and put into a separate category from persons. Indeed I have often run into problems by talking about the 7-16 year olds that we work with as ‘young people’. Those in authority tend to think (and official documents can back this up) that ‘young person’ means someone aged, say, 18-25. You only become a person at 18 in this view of the world.

In an ideal world it would be great to banish the term ‘child’ as it plays into the Caterpillar to Butterfly Fallacy. The language allows for a faulty view of the world. Young people are not a separate category of humans yet they can be treated as such. I once worked with a Government department on encouraging the role of young people in policy making. I found that all their surveys of what people wanted excluded under 18 year olds. Not a single piece of market research asked the under 18s. They were assumed to be non-persons and therefore of no interest to policy makers. Yet young people clearly had views about what this department was engaged in – and to be fair to the senior civil servants involved they eventually recognised that they needed to make fundamental changes in their processes of consultation. However their starting point was clearly that ‘children’ did not count as persons and were therefore made invisible by senior people. It reminded me of the adult exhortation when I was younger that ‘children should be seen and not heard’ (used to keep us youngsters quiet when adults were around – yet under their control by being seen).

The Caterpillar to Butterfly Fallacy assumes a magic transformation that occurs when a child becomes an adult. However the analogy clearly breaks down as there is no chrysalis phase. There is no magic transformation that occurs at 18. Young people under 18 are autonomous human beings, whether adults like it or not.

The error of schooling

The classic error in schooling is to assume that what is taught equals what is learned. Based on the idea that children are less than properly human and in need of moulding to fit adult society, teaching is designed to pour in knowledge to make children fit to enter the adult world. In reality young people choose what they want to learn anyway. They actively ignore the subjects that they don’t like and make their own choices about what to pay attention to. If teaching worked every young person would get all A* results in GCSEs.


Those of us who work with young people need to take seriously the role of language and of assumptions about young people. We have to be active in challenging erroneous thinking by policy makers and the educational establishment otherwise we will not make progress in supporting the rights of young people.

The UNICEF report of 2010 on ‘child inequality’ in 24 OECD countries put the UK in the next to bottom group of countries – only beaten by three other countries for poor performance in addressing ‘child inequality’. This is indicative of attitudes in the UK to young people and it needs to change. The empty rhetoric of the educational establishment about ‘doing more for children’ (young people), but still wanting to control them, won’t do. It has to be tackled head-on.

Ian Cunningham, March 2011