Do you realize that it is distinctly possible for a child to reach the age of 18 without ever having done something upon which someone else depended?
–Uri Bronfenbrenner Speech to Parents and Teachers at Independent Schools in Kansas City, 1975
Tomorrow’s Change Makers Don’t Underestimate Children.
We can force external obedience; but a genuine character is always the outcome of what the child himself wishes at heart to do or be. At a very early age he already shows that he has likes, dislikes, impulses, propensities of his own. In recent years these have received close study; and thanks to the writings of Hall, Barnes, Dewey, Thorndike, Freud and others, we know that, troublesome as these impulses are, they are also our very best allies.
Michael Vincent O’Shea (1866-1932) wrote this in The Child, His Nature and His Needs in 1924. Almost a hundred years later the message still needs to be heard across America today, and Marilyn Price-Mitchel says it.
Summarizing a mountain of research (over 150 sources) and in depth interviews and conversations with 22 young people aged 18-22, Price-Mitchell’s book, Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship, reports on how naturally young people take to the challenges presented by service learning projects.
Price-Mitchel takes O’Shea a step further. Yes, children are inexorably driving toward their unique character but also they seem to know that the fulfillment of their character requires caring about others (especially others who are different from them) and making the world a better place.
Contrary to popular opinion, “the young adults in this study, and thousands like them, are making a difference through collective efforts to improve society…. They are simply committed, motivated, and engaged adolescents who care about the planet and collectively act to make it a more caring, just and sustainable place to live.”
In the blogosphere and in parenting literature there is a lot of handwringing: How we can “instill empathy” and teach our children to grow up to be socially responsible, civic minded, empathetic, people who care? Marilyn Price-Mitchel provides a roadmap: give them opportunities, trust their inner drive to self-actualization, trust their journey, trust the natural development their morality, and be a mentor. (N.B. Their mentor will usually be someone other that a parent.)
The young people whom Price-Mitchel studied “did not begin their civic engagement from altruistic impulses, but mostly to better themselves.” How do you teach children how to care? See them as people who have empathy built in, and support them in the endeavor to become their character as they discover their value to the world.
One interesting theme is that although most of us want our children to take on challenges for the social good, we would just as soon they do it without taking a risk. We seem to have forgotten that a) risk taking is the very engine that gives them the strengths and the moral compass they need to put caring into action and b) it’s not really a risk if the risk has been pre-approved by the adults as an “acceptable” risk.
Marilyn’s young people “quite literally, stepped into a world unlike the one they knew,” like connecting with a homeless person or starting a school in Cambodia. In doing so they engaged their empathy, pushing them out of their emotional comfort zones, challenging them to develop their value system, and learn from the conflict between what they thought they knew and what they were experiencing. Discovering that they could have compassion for strangers directed their empathy toward meaningful civic goals—thus giving their own lives meaning. This sense of mission increased their motivation through college toward career goals.
These experiences gave them the abilities necessary for leadership—not just leading others, but more importantly, leading their own lives rather than merely living them.
O’Shea lists: “Normal desires of the young which we can harness in the interest of moral growth: Strengths, Earn a living, Hero Worship, Friendship, Distinction, Independence, Leadership, Will Power, Justice, Benevolent Impulses, Sex, Religion.”
If “a genuine character is always the outcome,” of whatever child rearing practice we use, and if all characters want to matter in the world, then the first step for those who care about Tomorrow’s Change Makers is to know that change maker is exactly what they want to be, and they want to get started now.
My career has taught me we should start by not underestimating children under age 14. Treat them as if social responsibility is exactly what they are going for. Children are not naturally selfish barbarians who have to be taught empathy, morality and civic mindedness. They have to be given the opportunity to be valuable to those around them—and are ready right away. Let them clear the dinner table (age 1.5), clean the floor (age 2.5), go on a mission to the person next door (age 6), write a letter to the Mayor of Oakland (age 8), set up the chairs in the multi-purpose room, get parents to stop smoking, teach younger kids, organize a group to clean up Lake Merritt and make a research project out of their question, “Where does all this litter come from?” (age 5 and up). It’s an infinite list.
If this is what the world expects of children, then when their high school says they have to serve in a soup kitchen, they will either go enthusiastically because they’re on a mission, or they will recommend a better mission to the administration. If however, the world mistakes their self-centeredness for selfishness and narcissism, we will get what we expect.
Some changes I would like to make tomorrow are: (1) all students of all ages would have at least one project they were working on to make a difference in the real world at all times, (2) people stop using the language of altruism (like “service,”) and (3) keep our eye on self-actualization.
The need to contribute is not on Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs lighting the path to self-actualization. It should be. One does not have to be especially mature and/or enlightened to want to contribute to the lives of others. The opposite is true. You have to be especially disabled not to want to be valuable to others. Beth Campbell, a great kindergarten teacher, once told me: “I see every unused ability in my class as an incipient behavior problem.”
Genius, the voice of our character, calls us inexorably toward our calling—and our calling includes the difference we make to others. We are not alone in this world.