To Contribute is a Basic Human Need
Ever play give-and-take with babies? They pick a carrot off the tray of their highchair and hold it out to you. You take it, say “Thank you,” and give it back to them, but it rarely stops there. They almost always give it back to you. They get more delight at getting the “Thank you,” than getting the piece of food.
I’ve seen an 18-month-old get down from the kitchen table, go to the counter to get the milk carton, bring it back and give it to his big sister. I’ve seen a four-year-old save his little brother from a heavy, glass door, and a two-year-old give his thirsty little sister his sippy-cup. I’ve seen a fifteen-month-old get her 30-month-old big brother to stop raging when the adults were powerless to make him stop. She gave him a hug.
These are all stories about what it means to be human. Humans need to be of value to each other. We need to contribute. To make our abilities valuable to others is a basic need at least as essential as food, and more essential than security. We even risk our lives for other people. Until psychologists, parents and other educators get this, we will continue to flounder powerlessly in a sea of ODD, EFD, ADHD and depression. Want to get dopamine flowing? Make someone else happy.
A great kindergarten teacher once said, “I see every unused ability in my class as an incipient behavior problem.” Got a problem? Who’s got unused abilities? It’s a diagnostic tool.
My third grade teacher used to make sure that each of us had a job, a way that we could contribute every day to the welfare of the class. Some teachers have kids teach each other. At some schools every child has a teaching buddy in another class. Students consistently name this as the best thing going on at school. A day when they taught their buddy was a great day no matter what else happened.
When I needed all the chairs set up in the multi-purpose room for an evening event, I didn’t ask the maintenance man. I went out to the playground at recess, approached a small knot of third-graders and asked them if they would help me set up the chairs. Only once in 34 years did I get a less-than-100% enthusiastic reaction. Often other kids would ask me if they could help, too.
Everyone thinks of seventh and eighth graders as especially self-centered, and indeed, middle school is prime time for self-consciousness, self-examination, and self-definition. But in our society we confuse self-centeredness with selfishness. More than anything else 13-year-olds want to show they are capable of taking on adult responsibility. That’s why seventh and eighth graders are the best baby-sitters.
In the game of school an A on a test is worth one point. Writing a great paper, making an award-winning science project or designing a cool robot are each worth three points, but making a difference to someone else is worth 10. Kids want to matter. Our need to prove our value to the group is the secret of all human success. Without this commitment to each other homo sapiens would have gone extinct long ago.
My hyperactive three-year-old grandson helps me empty the dishwasher and sets the table for dinner on his own. Dishes are kept in cabinets at his level. We’ve learned to anticipate. When he’s about to go haywire, we give him a challenging job.
In the 60’s and early 70’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Oakland, California, had an aging population, and the young, white families were moving out of what was becoming “inner city.” The school that was attached to the church was similarly losing enrollment. In 1973 Don Seaton, the new rector, rededicated the church as a mission to the community, and changed the mission statement of the school to read: “St. Paul’s Episcopal School is a mission to the community, and in particular the children of that community….” (The only school mission statement I know of that doesn’t start with students.)
This simple recommitment from looking inward to looking outward was at the core of the revitalization of the church and the school. Within a few years attendance at church was going up and enrollment at the school was skyrocketing.
Across the country kids are dropping out of school, and the harder we try to stop them, the worse it gets. Maybe, we should rethink our strategy.