Tag Archives: self esteem

I Got Another Puzzle For You*


Software has been developed to assist school principals in policing the online behavior of students; online behavior outside of school facilities and hours that is. Pointing out the folly of such a pursuit or the obscene waste of resources of such an endeavor is disheartening. As our public education system is eroding in rigor and well roundedness, do we really need yet another distraction? At what point are we Willy Wonka warning of yet another bad decision with hushed weary intonations of; “No. Stop. Don’t”?

The notion that a child’s behavior outside of school is the school’s business/problem is absurd. Unless the school is part of an orphanage it is not the school’s problem. The very idea that there could ever be any software program that could police all the children, in all electronic realms is simply science fiction. Children do stupid stuff. Kids can be mean. How they do this stuff is beside the point. Generations ago principals did not police finished basements, railroad tracks, bowling alleys and soda fountains. No doubt some principals at some point have cleaned graffiti off a bathroom wall, but they didn’t crouch in a corner ready to pounce upon the scribe (or at least I hope they didn’t.) Most of us of voting age were either bullied, a bully or a mix of the two at one point or another. It’s what kids do. Siblings torment siblings, classmates tease classmates, and kids terrorize neighbors (Boo Radley anyone?) It’s not nice, it’s nothing any adult is proud of, but it is part of growing up.

The issue is how children and the adults around them respond to such goings on. Bullying and extreme response to bullying both come from the same place; insecurity. Children are trying to find their way in the world and to feel some sense of control. A bully feels better about him or herself when they lord over someone. Being bullied feels crappy but should not feel like the end of the world. It becomes the end of the world when the bullying is unrelenting and perpetrated by many OR when the bullied is fragile. Fragility can take many guises but should be recognizable to parents. A fragile child does not have close (age appropriate) friends, reacts disproportionately to disappointment, and demonstrates excessive anxiety or (inward or outward) rage. Children who have trouble connecting to their world around them can be devastated by the sense that their world hates them. Children, particularly fragile children, are best served by having their world expanded. Multiple social networks (e.g., scouts, dance class, religious school, relatives, etc.) are an insurance policy against ostracization. Feeling good about one area of his/her life can be the light at the end of the tunnel for a bullied child.

The very idea that a principal should spend money and time trying to police the (often elusive) behavior of children is absurd. If there is that kind of time and money available perhaps we could get the arts back into the school? For decades arts, particularly theater, has been used with vulnerable populations to explore issues of empathy and self-esteem. Prisons and juvenile detention centers have changed lives with their theater arts programs. Children engaged in writing or visual arts projects learn about each other and find common ground. A school experience not based on physical agility or extroversion creates a more realistic environment for children. (Few adults have to make their way through every weekday by being popular.) Bullying and extreme response to bullying is about a response to lack of control. Adding more external control (which has no hope of being effective) completely misses the mark. Strong children are not built with surveillance systems. Strong children are built by a sense of accomplishment and mastery. Schools can play a part in that but to do so they need to focus on education not on in loco parentis.

*Oompa Loompa Song (1971) – Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

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Posted by on October 29, 2013 in Childhood, Education


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The Mayor, The Giant & The Bad Smell

green giant

What does New York City, frozen green beans & deodorant have in common? Stumped? They are all backing self-esteem campaigns for kids. What is a self-esteem campaign, you ask? Well, NYC, Green Giant & Secret are splashing out on media that lets kids know they are good enough gosh darn it. There are subtle differences in the campaigns however. The beans and roll-on focus is on bullying, and NYC is on the side of positive body image.

Mayor Bloomberg is telling girls he loves them just the way they are. This $330,000 initiative is partly a visual campaign exalting girls of all shapes and colors and a fitness program. Mixed message aside, the point is to combat the imagery with which girls are daily confronted. The Giant & deodorant on the other hand are focused on victims of bullying. Their’s seems a much more bland campaign with the goal of prompting conversation. (Is anyone not talking about bullying these days?!) What these three initiatives have in common are targeting the victim.

None of this bullying propaganda deals with the bully. Green Giant implores parents to; “Help Her Stand Up To Bullying.” Interestingly, bullying almost by definition, suggest more than a one-on-one experience. The bullies are almost always plural and the bullied is most definitely singular. (That’s why it works!) Simple math would suggest that more bean buying parents have a bully at their table than a victim. Forgetting the misguided calculation for a moment; what in the world does it mean to “stand up to a bully?” How is it helpful to throw such platitudes around? The way to combat bullying is to grow strong children. Children who feel confident and secure do not bully. Children who are told (through words and deeds) that they are simply the best build arrogance not self-esteem. Strength comes from mastering challenges not from trophies and ribbons. All children want to be liked (and hopefully grow out of that weakness by the time they’re parents.) It is perfectly natural for a child to crumble from bullying. As long as that child has friends, interests and activities outside of the bullying vortex they should be fine. But suggesting that he/she is somehow at fault is not fine.

A (meager) $330,000 campaign aimed at convincing girls they’re beautiful is also not fine. This drop in the bucket is ridiculous at best and patronizing at worst. Girls are raised in an overt feminized, and sexualized environment today. They are swathed in pink and glitter and bombarded with objectifying imagery. There are high-heeled shoes in toddler sizes now. Perhaps a campaign encouraging parents to turn off the television, stop buying celebrity magazines and get a little more gender neutral would have an impact. (Surrounding little girls with princess narratives and imagery is not terribly empowering.) Trying to grow strong girls in a climate of hair extensions, false eyelashes, silicone, twerking and botox is not easy. A subway poster or youtube video isn’t really gonna change much of anything. Particularly if they get off the subway and are confronted with softly pornographic posters in the station and above ground.

I don’t doubt everyone’s good intentions, but nothing short of being all in is going to work here. Focusing on the victims not only sends the wrong message but is simply not effective. If the bean people really want to be a meaningful voice in the bully conversation how about a graphic novel-esque serial of the Jolly Green Giant instigating an online attack against Sprout? This comic strip could illuminate the weakness and insecurity of the Giant and Sprout could demonstrate coping skills. If NYC is worried about the body image of its smallest female residents, perhaps Mayor Bloomberg could hire models to do before and after photos? Children could see the smoke and mirrors for themselves. At the end of the day it’s really hard to combat the 24/7 buzz. Girl children have never had so many negative messages and role models. There are so many ways and so many chances for girls to be objectified. There are new ways (every day) for bullies to hide and perpetrate their self-medicating ways. We (the grown-ups) created this and we can fix it. There isn’t one answer, it’s more of a collective of measures. Children have different needs and parents are in the best position to address them. One method that will never work, however, is to blame the victim.

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Posted by on October 1, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique


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The Mulching Of Minors


A father shared this observation of a friend’s 9-year-old in a restaurant; “She sat there for two, no three hours! In her seat, eating and being quiet!” This observation was jarring not for its narrative but for its delivery. His face and tone suggested he had seen a blue moon during a total eclipse of the sun. It’s always a wee bit awkward to be on the receiving end of something you don’t understand. It’s difficult, when you can’t relate or perhaps even understand the message to know how to respond. If you are graceful and socially adept you might smile and lightly yet rapidly change the subject. If you are somewhat more like, well like me, you might just let something wildly inappropriate fly from your mouth. But enough about me.

If you’ve never seen modern parenting in play, you know, like if you lived in a retirement community or a convent, you could still learn a thing or two by listening. Parents love talking about their children, just like gardeners love talking about their flowers. Even when they’re not talking about their own, or posting 35 photos of “dropping Madison off at camp” on Facebook, they’re sharing their parenting perspective. Take the stunned observation of the (above) father. If his own children sat nicely through a meal he might not have noticed the 9-year-old. If he felt it was valuable to teach a child how to be an enjoyable dining companion, he would simply assume that all children (who are old enough to be in a restaurant) know how to behave.

The point of parenting is to grow decent and strong adults. There are many diverse roads to that end. The values, perspectives and traditions of the parent should guide the journey. Being indoctrinated with parents’ political, social, religious, and ethical views is what gives a child roots. Structure, limits, expectations, and critical feedback are what makes a child blossom into an adult.

Typically a child of 5-years-old can sit still and understand the difference between public and private behavior. (That’s why formal education begins at age 5.) It’s a crucial part of a child’s socialization to expose them to the larger world. Keeping in mind the age appropriateness of the activity of course (bringing an 8-year-old to the ring cycle is endangering the welfare of a child.) The point of taking a school-age child to a restaurant (beside feeding them) is to expose them, in a controlled way, to the adult world. Teaching a child to; speak clearly to a waiter/waitress while looking him/her in the eye, ask for items to be passed, thank servers and observe adult conversation and financial transactions is the point of dining out with children. The child, learning and feeling confident about the adult world grows strong.

Learning that the adult world is something to aspire to, is how we fertilize children. Creating a world that is completely child-centric is not only a frightening burden of power but also an utter disincentive for growth. Children need to be heard and given the space to express themselves. But they need to do this in the protective environment that comes from stronger older people who know a thing or two about making a garden grow.

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Posted by on August 6, 2013 in Childhood


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You (version 6.1)

We are our stories. Some of us scour ancestral records looking for the ‘truth’. Some of us pick and choose what elements best tell our story. Some of us (a la Holly Golightly) create our own stories. But in the end we are our stories.
Whether we cling to family names and lore or change our names and run from the past, we are saying the same thing to the world; we are who we say we are. It often helps us to find our footing in the world, these narratives. Perhaps Mr. Romanoff never would have opened a successful restaurant if he didn’t claim a royal title. Perhaps Dale wouldn’t have won friends and influenced people had he not changed the spelling of his last name; giving the impression he came from a more distinguished family. People have been changing their names for as long as they’ve been changing their stories. Often for reason of life and death, but also for the pursuit of happiness.
We could argue the definition of happiness but we agree on what happiness isn’t; misery. There is much research on the resilience of human beings. There are people who have withstood the most horrific and miserable of circumstances and not just survived but thrived. There are other people who shatter like antique glass under much less harrowing ordeals. Why? If we are all made from (very) similar biological stuff, why is there such a discrepancy in our resilience? It would seem there is little correlation between optimism and resilience. Someone in the throes of anguish doesn’t bounce back because they believe the sun will come out tomorrow. It must be more about self-definition. A person having a strong sense of themselves can separate (not disassociate) from their circumstances. They can walk through hell and keep walking. A person who defines themselves by external stimuli (including the manner in which they’re treated) believes that hell is their new mailing address.
If this is true how do we help ourselves (and others) create a strong sense of self. The very first way is the stories we are told or tell to to the small. Children with a sense of ‘where they come from’ have a better sense of where they’re going. If their creation was mainstream/traditional the storytelling is pretty straightforward. If there is anything that veers slightly from “when a mommy and daddy love each other very much they want to be close as possible…” children must be told in an age-appropriate manner. The way we tell these stories is as important as the stories themselves. No parties should ever be demonized as children can do simple math (if my biological father was an evil son of a bitch what does that make me?) Having a sense of one’s ancestry creates solid roots on which to grow.
Beyond our narrative of origin what can help make us strong? External rewards are often kryptonite to a strong sense of self. Awards, honors and trophies are based as much on others’ performance as they are our own. You can’t win any kind of accolade unless others lost. The only way to feel accomplished is to accomplish something; at any age (ex. riding a 2-wheeler, taking the bus unescorted, learning to drive.) Finding things that we’re good at is one of the more rewarding ways of bolstering a sense of self. When we know we’re good at something (ex. raising ferrets, making goulash, painting murals, investing money, etc.) it matters little what others think and thereby diminishes any inclinations we might have towards external definition.
In the end we are exactly who we say we are. We decide how to pitch our own story. If we cull our life stories, most of us could create a compelling Lifetime move script. But to what end? (Have you ever watched one of those films?!) What do we gain from being the lead in a bad made-for-tv-movie? Why not go back and look at what happened in between the hardships and tell that story? Whatever happened, either despite it or because of it made you who you are today. More importantly you are still here. It’s never too late to reframe or update your story. No one is keeping track of how many versions there are.

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Posted by on March 25, 2013 in Childhood, Well-Being


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Words Can’t Bring You Down*

“What are your thoughts on bullying?” I was asked the other day.  There’s no simple answer is there?  While not a fan of bullying, I also don’t think it’s the black plague.  We need to be careful not to label all behavior that is less than kind as bullying.  Labeling behavior as bullying does not encourage conversation and understanding but leads to “zero tolerance” policies that can have illogical and arbitrary consequences.

I don’t know if incidents of bullying have increased.  How can we know when we’re not entirely clear what bullying is?  Here’s what bullying is not; having a disagreement, calling another person a name, or excluding someone from an activity.  Bullying certainly is causing a person harm, waging an ongoing campaign of physical intimidation, and inciting ostracization or teasing.  As soon as children are old enough to engage socially (around 3 years old) they begin to create groups.  Even in kindergarten children begin to identify whom to tease.  Their target can appear to be a mirror image of the group.  They are not necessarily weaker than others.  They may be singled out for the brand of sandwich bag they bring to school.  This is how it can start.

There have always been (and undoubtedly always will be) children who behave dreadfully to other children.  There are children who are not emotionally well, and are capable of simply inconceivable acts.  But then there are children, who are, well they are children.  They show poor judgment and above all, live for the acceptance of their peers.  They find themselves caught up in a behavior that fills them with shame and even more shamefully, a little pride.

What concerns me is how children are handling being the target of less than kind behavior.  I worry that children are reacting in intense and fatal ways.  A child committing violence (to themselves or others) because they felt bullied, is not normal.  Even for an adolescent.  I worry that all children are not as strong as they once were.  (For really what is a bully but one who feels inadequate?)  I worry that we have cultivated a generation (or more) whose lives are more external than internal, leaving them feeling fragile and teetering when the world no longer applauds.

When we hold graduation ceremonies for preschoolers, kindergartners, or hell, anything below high school, we are sending an esteem-crushing message to our children: “Doing the bare minimum may be your greatest accomplishment, yeah for you!”  We are also teaching them that their worth is intrinsically tied to applause.  Every activity now has an audience.  When they play, their parents are on the sidelines or actually coaching them along.  Every recital is videotaped and shown.  In short, their lives are excruciatingly public from their first framed sonogram.

There is no internal strength that is derived from an external life (just look at the personal life of any celebrity past or present.)  Self-esteem is not cultivated through “Best Snack Provider” trophies or “Honor Student” bumper stickers.  Self-esteem is created by the self.  It is grown through mastery.  When a child navigates new terrain, on his/her own, he/she glows with the accomplishment.  When a child problem solves or conquers a fear, they grow stronger.  Praise (real or empty) does not create self-esteem, independence does.  Praising a preschooler for “good waving!” is the gateway to a lifetime of empty praises.  Children are not stupid.  They know the difference.  We build strong children by encouraging increasing amounts of independence.

A child who feels a true sense of worth, who feels they are good at something, is much less likely to pick on someone else.  He/she is also much less likely to be devastated by being picked on.  We need to take (physical and/or psychological) violence against children very seriously.  We need to equally take seriously how our children are responding to such acts.  We are a culture that loves to treat symptoms and ignore causes.  How do I feel about bullying? I feel that the stronger (adults) need to acknowledge and redress their cultivation of the weaker.

* Beautiful: Linda Perry (2002)


Posted by on June 1, 2012 in Childhood


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