|Living in the age of self-absorption, it is reflexive to feel cynical about the value of further self-examination, but there is an enormous difference between being self-centered and being self-aware. It is an experiential distinction that warrants clarification, at about the time a child learns to read. Self-absorption is a rabid social epidemic. In contrast, self-awareness is a body of knowledge whose existence is in constant peril. The experiences and artifacts that can potentially build self-awareness may be nonchalantly pushed to the margins of our awareness or, worse, lost altogether. Irreplaceable windows into children’s deeper selves lies submerged in their art, writing, assessments, journals, photos, and projects of all kinds.
The risk of lost self-knowledge is compounded by the malleability of our social selves. If your son, daughter, or students virtually live on Facebook (a preoccupation which a group of British boys playfully described to me as an “essential waste of time”), then they are accustomed to a shifting notion of self -and the freedom to reconstruct their identities from one day to the next. This is the garden variety postmodern experience we have cultivated, and which is accelerated by electronica. Young people live as though they are fully capable of changing their social selves with a click of a button, from one moment to the next, and without harm to their core beings.
Our societies currently tend to celebrate reinvention, portraying only the positive aspects of this role-play. We have amnesia for what is lost and take every opportunity to flee from what we cannot change. Adolescents, in particular, are anxious to shed their “childish” selves, even as they will need to revisit these archetypal dimensions of self as they mature. These threads of personal history are trails of evidence leading to life’s ultimate destination – oneself.
The impulse of the emerging generation is to drift away from an enduring, stable self that is resistant to reconstruction. At this moment in our cultural history, personhood seems confined to existing only in the present moment, oblivious to personal history, and how that history establishes a continuity of being.
This instinct may be partially adaptive. We are, after all, in the last phases of a human psychology driven by the belief that wellness depends on our ability to shed the wounds of the past. Perhaps, then, it is no wonder that last vestige of this transition would be to shed the past altogether. Yet this change of course is not without consequence, one being that a larger conception of personhood has gone underground, and is in desperate need of resurrection.
Because the essence of growing up involves growing into yourself. As much as youth inspires us to believe that this self is of our own choosing, life suggests otherwise. This is not commentary on either genetics or social status. Here, I am talking about our psychological reality – the idea that a kernel of our deeper selves is present from the earliest years of our lives, and awareness of the shape of that being is pivotal to our transformation into adults. Absent this self-knowledge, we are destined to be stuck in a perpetual adolescence.
It is only through encounter with one’s enduring self that a young person can make the essential ascent from self-absorption to self-knowledge. This ascent marks the shift from living in a state of subjectivity to one of objectivity – the psychological architecture of maturity. Without this shift, adolescence is prolonged indefinitely. We could conceivably end up with an entire generation confined to the relativism of an ever-shifting self – a people without specific roots or destiny.
At life’s most critical moments knowledge of self is more valuable than gold. It is within that body of knowledge that we make decisions reflecting our core values, interests, and needs. This is the foundation of living a congruent life, and is of the utmost importance in the age of Facebook. Our cultures celebrate makeovers, new beginnings, and the cult of personality but what of the perennial need for authenticity? Through what other means are young people to hear the call of their individual destinies? Is it possible that the fixation on a malleable self is a circular manifestation of immaturity, that grows little more than a mirror image of its own reality?
Where Does Self-knowledge Come From?
I have found a particularly receptive audience for this initiative at girls’ schools I have recently visited, but see no reason why self-knowledge would be of any less value to boys. My current research involvement with the International Boys’ Schools Coalition is ample proof – the world is populated with vast numbers of boys eager to contextualize their personal experiences in pursuit of knowing their destiny. If you want to know those thoughts, you need only ask them to “dance.” Both genders are eager and ready to engage this avenue of self-growth now.
It may not be altogether fashionable or contemporary to advocate for a more static conception of self in the year 2010, but some degree of permanence in a child’s life is stabilizing. It represents security, and provides the existential gravity that allows one to grow and evolve free of the anxiety that such experimentation might threaten the integrity and wholeness of one’s enduring self. While the notion of boundless plasticity might seem exciting, especially for those young enough to be in the throes of emergence, it is an ascent without summit for someone who needs to find their way toward the more objective maturity of adulthood.
[Those who subscribe to the “let children be children” school of thought might well object to the preceding. But in fact the very premise of self-knowledge is to honor the psychology of childhood as being worthy of a more complete record. This can be accomplished at the same time that we place that record in a larger life context. Narrative and context facilitate the adolescent passage, and help the young to embrace the reality that growing up is merely becoming a more complete version of who you already are. It is a process that should be anchored by joy rather than fear, by fulfillment rather than compromise.]
In my recent talks and consultations with schools, I have discussed the value of a self-knowledge archive comprised of a variety of projects that a student has done from early childhood through adolescence. These projects should not be assigned with the understanding that they would be part of a self-knowledge archive, because such self-consciousness would undermine the potential revelations implicit in the archive projects. However, over time, and with periodic examination of the archive’s contents, this work promises to heighten self-awareness in formative ways.
For very young children, the archive could be made up of a variety of creative works such as drawings or their early attempts at formulating stories. For older children, these creative works may have a higher degree of complexity, and could include photographs, artwork, journals, and other types of school work that map the trek toward self-understanding.
I should alert you to the fact that it is impossible to anticipate how such works will inform a person’s self-understanding. If such effects were a foregone conclusion, the artifacts would be of far less value. The vitality of a self-knowledge archive springs from its dynamic portrayal of a self-in-progress. When the contents of this archive are viewed in chronological order with an eye toward scanning for the deeper forms, ideas, and expressions that punctuate a person’s history, the shapes of an enduring self can finally be seen and acknowledged for what they are – the seeds of individual destiny.
Digging for these seeds has a substantial history in psychology but can still be a bit intimidating. So much so that adults who have not done this exploration in their own lives may be hesitant to encourage it among those younger. In his thought provoking book, Nature and the Human Soul, author Bill Plotkin pinpoints the situation: “The descent that adolescents must undergo is what most scares people about teenagers (including teenagers themselves). But this is also what grieves many older people, because, somewhere inside, they know this is where they needed to go as teens but didn’t, and the question still hovers the in air in front of them as to whether it is too late.”
At the outset of such an endeavor, particularly with respect to young children, the task might feel a bit arduous and uncertain. However, I can assure you that the meaning of the journey will become crystal clear at the moment when the journey is most relevant, and this is generally during the adolescent passage.
We need a set of artifacts that guide us toward more sophisticated self-knowledge than what we can cull from peers and online personality tests. These artifacts are necessary to be confident of ourselves and the decisions we make about where to steer our lives. These artifacts may be present in scrapbooks or tucked in drawers and cabinets at home, but in this over-consuming, disposable, and electronic era they need a more permanent repository in order for their narrative power to accrue and serve the individual who has created them.
Personal Histories Need an Archive
Those of you who follow this newsletter have likely read about Project 360°, which is attached as a link at the end of this newsletter. I believe that Project 360° is an excellent starting point for a self-knowledge archive begun during middle school. A self-assessment focused on cognitive capabilities (such as the Eight Pillars of executive function) is also a valuable component of a self knowledge archive. The archive need not be comprised only of expressive work, it can also include work that is related to cognitive performance, academic talent, and extracurricular skills. All of these artifacts reflect cornerstone’s of a person’s enduring self – the rock upon which they will stand to map the terrain ahead.
Working with Generational Differences
Self-knowledge helps facilitate the most valuable psychological transition in all of childhood and adolescence – the capacity to move from subjectivity to objectivity. This perceptual shift is the quintessence of what it means to move from the mind of a child to the mind of an effective adult. No one can master this jump in one simple step, or even in a few short years. It is an awareness that needs to be unfolded over time, and one which will require the input of a community: fellow travelers (other students), teachers, mentors, and even those unfamiliar with the person in question.
When it comes time for the self-knowledge archive to be examined by others, it should be done in a respectful way, and without judgment. The archive is a repository of self rather than personal achievements. It is not competitive. It should in fact convey just the opposite – that personal histories have an inherent equivalence because those histories are a record rather than a report card. To judge those records would be akin to rating the value of various birth certificates. And to paraphrase Carl Jung, the quest of life is for wholeness, not perfection.
Bearing witness to one’s own history, and especially those aspects of self that are enduring is a game-changer for those old enough to begin connecting the dots. When you are an adolescent you operate as though all of the valuable things you know about yourself and your world have been learned in the last 30 days. It is a tremendous surprise, and ultimately reassuring, to see that you, as a whole person, has been taking shape for years. Who you are is more than the music you like, the people you love, or the or the Facebook page you’ve created. You are the subject of a story that has been written line by line since birth.
You may sense in this newsletter an idea that is underscored in many of my thoughts of the past few years – the proposition that the very purpose of school warrants reconsideration. Clearly, schools have a responsibility to educate children, but what of the value of nurturing those same children’s deeper selves? When I meditate on the definition of a school I can find no more succinct answer than a school is a community. One responsibility of that community is to educate its members, but another fundamental responsibility is to raise and protect its members. I certainly hope international conversation about this responsibility moves beyond talk of bullying prevention and the nutritional value of school lunches. In the midst of addressing these important day-to-day concerns, there is another narrative of greater long-term consequence. It is the story of individuals coexisting within a world whose nature is to homogenize rather than differentiate. As the stewards of this unfolding narrative, our collective responsibility is to help keep the individual stories of human beings intact until the formative chapters have been written, and the young are old enough to remember who they are.
|The Case for Boredom
Those who regularly read Family Matters will know of my interest in the connection between boredom and a civil society. It was my good fortune to publish an in-depth article on this topic in the Spring issue ofThe New Atlantis. The article allowed me to more fully explore the relationship between electronica, the neurology of adolescence, and the need for reflection and boredom in a civil society. I know from my travels and emails that many of us working with children and adolescents have a common interest in this topic. It has also been suggested to me by those familiar with the ways of government in the United States that perhaps politicians would benefit from an examination of the roots of their own incivility. Along these lines, it’s quite possible that Blackberry’s constitute a threat to national harmony.The article in The New Atlantis also generated significant interest in other publications, including Newsweek. Several weeks ago I was briefly interviewed by George Will, who later published an article based largely on my thesis about the necessity of boredom in a civil society. I hope you might find one or the other article worth a few more minutes of your time.
|Ask Dr. Cox|
|Q. My 13-year-old twins could not be more different. My daughter likes music, and is extremely shy. My son likes everybody but can’t seem to stay focused for more than a minute. I’m not sure if either one needs help, but do you think it’s normal for two kids raised in the same house, and in basically the same way to be so different? Both tried playing instruments, but only my daughter stuck with it and was willing to practice. On the other hand, my son’s friends seem to worship him. Do you think they will be more alike as they get to be adults?
Sara T., Hartford, CTDear Sara,
Although genetic similarities among twins can account for behavioral similarities, fraternal twins are at least as likely to be shaped by gender and environmental differences. Research also informs us that the whole of a person can only be understood by accounting for all forms of difference, especially personal experiences. I think it’s unlikely that your son and daughter will become more alike as they get older. But I do think it’s likely that they will gain greater respect and appreciation for their differences as they get older. By age 13, many of the building blocks of personality have already been put in place. What could be valuable to your children is for both of them to know themselves at a deeper level, because it is only through this type of knowledge acquisition (see above article) that a person can be a good advocate for him or herself as life goes on. For now, I’m sure you appreciate them for who they are, and the respective strengths they bring to life.
Q. Our son has had at least three IQ tests since he started school – he’s now 11. Each time the test results came back showing that his intelligence is on the low side. Basically, in the 85 to 90 range. That just doesn’t fit with what my husband and I see in him. To us, he doesn’t seem that different from his friends or cousins. Is it possible for three IQ tests to be wrong? What should we do if we think these test scores are wrong? You probably know how schools react to these test scores. It’s very hard to convince people that they could be wrong.
The idea of an intelligence test is to uncover a person’s ability when they are doing their best. I believe that whatever is necessary to change the emotional state of the individual so that maximum ability can be tapped is a basic requirement of good testing procedure. I suspect, however, that my belief in this regard might be met with some resistance by some testing professionals, particularly those that have more children to test than there are hours in the day. Still, my understanding of the role of testing is not to categorize a child so much as it is to find out something about the spirit and potential of that child. The only way I feel confident this can be accomplished is to help a child become thoroughly engaged. Not an easy task after someone has been tested several times – but not impossible. Good luck!
On the Road Again
In the next month I will have the good fortune to visit schools in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore as part of my research on Significance in Boys’ Lives.
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Updated List of Workshops
Click here for an updated list of workshops and descriptions.
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