Homilies telling children that they can be anything they want to be must be tightly linked with family and community resources that will assist the children in developing the capabilities to accomplish their dreams. Building children’s capacity for success must begin well before dreaming is encouraged or, at the very least, asset building must take place simultaneously, and must continue throughout the children’s developmental years.
I have mentioned in these pages many times the Search Institute’s findings that children need Forty Assets to succeed: twenty External assets from the family and the community; and twenty Internal Assets that children must develop within their psychological, spiritual and intellectual dimension. The external assets must be present even before children are capable of understanding what “If you can dream it, you can achieve it” means.
By six or seven-years of age, children will begin to understand information that reflects grownup hypocrisy, racism and how different people are valued in America. By end of seventh grade, children will have spent 95% of their lives outside school and in their homes and local communities. Some 75% of the External Assets exist outside children’s homes. If adults have prepared them correctly, they won’t need the words about dreaming; but if adults have failed to prepare them, words alone will be blatantly useless, perhaps even harmful.
If we build young people’s dreams unrelated to actual capacity to achieve, their aspirations will often turn into unrealistic expectations. Their expectations may even become compulsive as they become aware of what there is to want and what they must have right now! If they find that are not able to be all they want to be, or have all they want to have, their psychological decline may be so profound that many will begin to commit social, psychological and educational suicide.
If adults do not teach them to set goal-oriented behavior-patterns, to honestly assess their strengths, to remedy their weaknesses, and learn to delay immediate gratification, and overcome adversity, hard work may be rejected for fun things. Basketball is more fun than biology; video games are more fun than English, chemistry, physics and calculus homework; living free now is more fun than preparing for success in the distant future; turning off the world with drugs and alcohol is more fun than staying engaged with the rigors of real life.
Over-confidence that has not been built with reality thinking may even cause increases in risk-taking behavior. Children who are sure they can’t lose take foolish chances and often get into trouble. And in certain categories of people in our nation, there are no second chances. Our jails and morgues are filled with them.
Contrary to popular myth, children are not born morally mutant, fledgling criminals, or even angels, just little fledgling human beingss. Their experiences after they arrive among us will determine their life-direction. The measure of an entire community’s asset strength can be determined by looking at youth violence, crime, teenage pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases, theft, school failure, cheating, and other anti-social conduct.
Although we hear often that the decline in our children’s behavior was caused by the disintegration of the “traditional family,” I am convinced that the disintegration of the “traditional community” preceded and caused, or strongly exacerbated, the decline of the family.
In the early years after slavery, Black Families were embedded in supportive communities; families were not left on their own for child-rearing or the other necessities for surviving in America. Not all families can provide their 25% of the External Assets. However, if the community’s 75% are properly constituted and sustained, more children will be saved. Because a large number of responsible adults, not the government, will be providing proper support for adults and children; it will be easier for children who are doing well to sustain and increase their performance; more children who normally do not perform well will be encouraged toward greater success; violence and classroom disruptions will decrease substantially; teachers in the classrooms will be motivated to do high quality teaching for all the students; neighborhoods will be safer and more secure for children and adults; and more adult organizations, institutions and businesses will support schools and youth activities.
My conviction about the power of the External Assets resulted from my growing-up years in Roanoke, when local communities were more like extended families, not just people who simply lived side by side.
I realize it is impossible to reconstruct such communities geographically, but it is not impossible to do it spiritually, and that spirit, if developed, will begin to make the differences in outcomes. The alternative is a continual worsening of already reprehensible conditions that are not the children’s fault, but they bear the brunt! And this is a national disgrace.