It is a well-known fact that children within the black community are bombarded early in life with images that define 'beauty', 'intelligence' or 'success' which run counter to the images they view in their own mirrors. This effectively devalues their self-concept at a critical stage. There exists a lack of appreciation for differing definitions of 'beauty', 'intelligence' or 'success' in major societal institutions with the media outlets of television, radio and print having the most influence. The effects of this push toward conformity in definitions are evident in the well known diversity experiment conducted in 1954 by Kenneth Clark. The experiment encompassed showing Black children a white doll and a black doll and then asking them a set of questions on their opinions of the dolls. Initially, many of the children are first asked which doll they preferred. The wide majority of the children chose the white doll because they thought it looked 'prettier'. In another sample, the children are first asked to select the doll that looks 'bad', they overwhelmingly chose the black doll. In several instances, when subsequently asked to select the doll that looks like them, the children first touch the white doll, but then hesitantly select the black doll. Sadly, this experiment was conducted again fifty years later by Kiri Davis and yielded the same result. These findings reveal a significant need to offer these children images that foster a positive self-concept.
Self-esteem and self-concept are closely connected, but although the terms of self-concept and self-esteem are often used interchangeably, they represent different but related ideas. Self-concept refers to a child's perception of being adequate or having skill in academic, social, behavioral and/or athletic areas. Self-esteem is a child's overall feeling of general happiness and satisfaction with him- or herself. So, self-concept actually feeds either constructively or destructively into self-esteem. High self-esteem ends up being the result of the positive characteristics of a high self-concept. In other words, if an individual is pleased with her self-concept, she will have high self-esteem.
Why positive self-concept is important
Enhancing the development of a positive self-concept in young, black children is important because it affects behavior related to all aspects of daily life. It is important to know that according to experts, a person's self-concept is established quite early in life—40 percent of an individual's mature ego development is actually achieved by age seven. Though it can always be enhanced or devalued, one's self-concept also requires continual maintenance and support.
A healthy self-concept is like a child's armor against the challenges of the world. Children who know their strengths and weaknesses and feel good about themselves seem to have an easier time handling conflicts and resisting negative pressures. Research indicates that individuals that grow up with a positive self-concept will aspire to leadership, are willing to receive constructive criticism, and are willing to take risks more often. Part of positive self-concept and self-esteem is a belief that success or failure depends on one's own abilities and actions. Those with a positive self image take responsibility for their actions and believe that they have control and influence over the events in their lives. They adjust well to frustration, feel able to influence their environments, know how to deal with adversity in positive ways, and are confident in themselves. It is in helping our children to develop these skills that we are doing them a great service.
What is at stake
In contrast, children with a low self-concept can find challenges to be sources of major anxiety and frustration. They may not want to try new things and may speak negatively about themselves. Those who think poorly of themselves also have a hard time finding solutions to problems. They may exhibit a low tolerance for frustration, giving up easily or waiting for somebody else to take over. Research indicates that individuals that grow up with a negative self-concept will avoid leadership roles, criticism, and risk-taking. They are less resistant to peer pressure, media influences, and propaganda. Those with a low self-image also tend to see temporary setbacks as permanent and intolerable conditions and a sense of pessimism then prevails. This can place children at risk for stress and mental health problems as well as real difficulties solving different kinds of problems and challenges they encounter. They may end up more prone to drug abuse, pregnancy outside of marriage, to drop out of school, or engage in socially unacceptable behaviors of all kinds, especially acts of delinquency or violence against others. Individuals with a negative self-concept are easily frustrated, blame others for their problems, avoid difficult situations so as not to "fail," and are dependent upon others to tell them what to do. Giving in to self-critical thoughts such as "I'm no good" or "I can't do anything right," they may become more passive, withdrawn or depressed. When faced with a new challenge, their immediate response might be "I can't."
Where we can start
It is wise for parents to think about developing and promoting self-concept during early childhood. As children try, fail, try again, fail again, and then finally succeed, they develop ideas about their own capabilities. Today's society is full of examples of actions which intentionally or unintentionally increase a young, black child's dependency on others, stifle his/her creativity and initiative, lower self-concept, and decrease the development of responsible decision-making. This is why parental involvement is key to helping children form accurate and healthy self-perceptions. There is abundant information suggesting that what parents and teachers do early on to set the stage for a child to develop a positive self concept is critically important. The framework below is not new and is not complex but will go a long way to mitigating the growing number of negative influences overwhelming our youth.
Research suggests that most parents and caregivers can be helpful when involving children in:
• Cooperation--so they realize their and others' unique strengths and the contributions each can make as they work together in groups toward common goals.
• Decision-making--encouraging experimentation and exploration as they learn how to develop their own ways for working toward goals.
• Developing independence—expecting and encouraging responsibility and independent behavior shows respect for children as individuals who are in the process of growing up.
• Goal-setting--so they learn the process of setting realistic goals on their own rather than relying on goals determined by others. Helping children establish self-set, realistic goals is one of the most important things parents and teachers can do.
• Self determination--so they identify their own criteria and establish benchmarks to measure progress, developing trust in their own evaluations.
• Trusting--so they will be open and honest with their feelings, yet accepting the strengths of others as they recognize their own.
It really does take a village
As a community (i.e. parents, teachers and other care givers), when we work with our children, to facilitate the development of a positive self-concept, we will be most successful when we allow our children to see and hear us--
• accommodate and support differences
• celebrate individuality over blind conformity
• develop a sense of belonging
• encourage participation in decision-making
• foster supportive relationships
• give specific reasons for our praise
• guide children in resolving conflict and interacting positively
• help change the point of reference when judging
• model the behavior we teach
• offer examples of the model behavior through positive imagery
• promote pro-social values and self-discipline
• support children in taking on responsibilities
• use less criticism
Facilitating the development of a positive self-concept is critically important and the ways to do it are clear. We, as a community, should make it evident to our children that each of us is unique, and that each of us wants to feel good about him/herself, trust ourselves and others, and make contributions to our community. We must play a central role in off-setting the negative influences which constantly bombard our children's sense of self-worth by encouraging and equipping them for success in a difficult world.
Steve Johnson is the owner of HNK (Happy, Nurturing and Kind) Concepts and creator of the Fearless Five, an adorable team of young, black children that imagine themselves as superheroes and go on exciting adventures together where they get to explore their potential while overcoming challenges. His company offers a popular five-part picture book series (for ages 3 to 9) along with an apparel line (for all ages) through the website http://www.fearlessfive.com.