What Has Happened to Our Children?

05/11/2020  |  With Dr. Robert Furman
COLUMN
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Children eating Tide Pods. Children bring guns to school to kill. Turn on the news or look on your favorite social media site and you are bombarded with news of our children doing some of the most ridiculous and scary things you can imagine. What has changed?

Forty to 50 years ago a self-esteem curriculum was thought to be almost an educational religion. Our mantra back then was, “We need to educate the whole child.”

Being in the educational system I feel something has changed, and it’s not good. What might all of these children have who so desperately need to be noticed in common? They must feel invisible. They want to be noticed. I think we can agree that these tormented children might have very low self-esteem and see the world through negatively charged lens. Self-esteem is closely related to social acceptance and possessing little self-regard can lead to depression and other mental health issues. Clearly self-esteem is a big deal!

Forty to 50 years ago a self-esteem curriculum was thought to be almost an educational religion. Our mantra back then was, “We need to educate the whole child.” Parents and teachers were taught how to encourage the development of positive self-esteem in our children. According to Harris Clemes and Reynold Bean (1980), this development begins in the home and continues through the next five years of education. At approximately 10 years of age, our children “clothe” themselves in the self-esteem of their choice: either positive or negative. After this choice has been accepted by the child’s emotional development, he will spend the rest of his life proving that he chose correctly. Hence, the child that slaps another and is punished says to himself, “See, I told you I was a bad person.” Therefore, it is imperative that we give our children what they need to develop a positive self-concept before the age of 10.

Then in the mid 1990s the bottom fell out of the self-esteem craze. Apparently, we were just being too nice to our children and each other. You heard comments such as “it’s not realistic to be positive all the time,” “Life doesn’t work that way,” “They need to have a taste of the real world,” “Why do kids get participation trophies.” Looking at our children of today, how did this work out for us?

Those quotes are stated by ignorant people who never received the positive self-image that they needed as children. Negativity breeds negativity. Bullies breed bullies. It still upsets me when I hear adults saying that participation trophies are wrong. Here is a quote from a New York Times article:

Trophies for all convey an inaccurate and potentially dangerous life message to children: We are all winners.

Why can’t we all be winners? What this quote fails to mention is that if you are not a winner then you are a loser! Now, for the record, there is a time and place for winners and losers. It is a sport, after all. But for children from five to 10 years of age, when their self-image is being formed and their esteem is brittle at best, do we really need to shout at them that they are losers. Maybe you didn’t win and maybe you didn’t get the winner’s trophy, but you got something to show for your hard work and dedication. When we need kids to be connected to a positive group, do we want to make that group a negative experience in their development of self-esteem?

The development of self-esteem can be visualized as the scales of justice. Positive experiences — friendship, love, awards, family, etc. — will be collected on one side and negative experiences — harsh words, divorce, abuse, loss, etc. — collected on the other. Eventually, the scale needs to be tipped in favor of the positive side in order to develop positive self-esteem. Simplistic perhaps, but this makes my point. As the parents put their children in the hands of educators, we then become the appropriator of positive experiences. These experiences can be categorized, according to the research of Clemes and Bean (1980), in four categories: connectiveness, uniqueness, power and models. What can we do in the schools to give our students these kinds of experiences? The following are a few examples:

  • Connectiveness: classroom teams, clubs, friendship circles, soccer, basketball, band, chorus, etc.
  • Uniqueness: talent shows, classroom officers, school ambassadors, birthday awards, letters from the principal, hobby and/or collection showcase, etc.
  • Power: school governance, assignment choices, input into classroom rules, permission to disagree, etc.
  • Models: Principal, teachers and students must be held in high regard. Students can then model other students as well as adults to determine how to manage both achievements and disappointments.

The bottom line is that we need to know every child personally and they need to know that we know them. Those children who are on a negative path must be given immediate support to determine that which is missing in their life. Our children will showcase what they need. For instance, kids joining gangs at a young age need a better sense of connectiveness. Those children wanting to become famous or infamous by terrorizing others, are obviously in need of a sense of uniqueness. These students picking up guns and knives are now exerting their power over their life because they have been placed in very low-power situations throughout life with no voice or choice. It is not surprising that our children take to modelling rock stars and terrorists. It is very difficult to find worthy models to emulate in our society, making it even more necessary that we are those models for our children. We need to model respect, honesty, humility, compassion, responsibility, etc.

How long before someone has enough sense to realize that our children are screaming for something positive in their lives and they need it through a positive self-esteem. Let’s please get back to educating the “whole child” and focus on developing healthy children as well as high achievers.

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