Three words constantly float through my head when I think about kids’ learning – belonging, significance and fun. Psychologist Abraham Maslov identified a hierarchy of needs which, when met, allow a person to take risks in her learning that ultimately lead to self-actualization. These needs are predetermined in order of importance, beginning with physiological and safety, followed by social and self-esteem. Maslov’s seminal contribution, titled A Theory of Human Motivation, documents innate curiosity and intellectual growth in exemplary people and in the top one percent of college students, but has come to be applied broadly in educational settings. In populations where physical and safety needs are met without question, it is when the social and self-esteem needs are met that kids can take huge leaps in their learning and personal growth.
Social needs involve emotionally- based relationships such as friendship, intimacy and a safe and communicative family. Humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, whether it comes from a large social group, such as clubs, religious groups, sports teams, gangs, or small social connections. Each of us needs to love and be loved by others in some form or another. All humans have a need to be respected, to have self-esteem, self-respect, and to respect others. Also known as the belonging need, esteem presents the normal human desire to be accepted and valued by others. People need to engage themselves to gain recognition and have an activity or activities that give the person a sense of contribution, to feel accepted and self-valued, be it in a profession or hobby. People with low self-esteem need respect from others. They may seek fame or glory, which again depends on others. Often with children, we see this manifest in negative attention seeking behaviors, acting out, or seeking attention from negative social influences.
However, once the building building blocks of belonging and acceptance are in place, the potential for appropriate risk taking and great leaps arise in and out the classroom. This past week, I was in Rockies skiing with three families with total of eight kids ages nine to fifteen. Two of these kids had skied less than five times and don’t often have opportunities to socialize with other kids and families. They were new to this pack of skiing families, but within just a few days, nobody on the outside would have guessed. With fourteen people providing a sense of belonging and significance, these two kids not only became far more competent skiers, due in part to having their social and belonging needs met. With in a few days, they had negotiated friendships, felt the safe boundaries, and took risks as skiers and in their new relationships. We witnessed sharing and playing with peers, finding humor in everyday things, competing in friendly ways and how taking care of others builds trust. It’s these underlying social gains which propelled them to take risks in their skiing abilities and build their self-esteem.
Even with the myriad of social networks available to kids outside school, family, and other safe and supportive communities, the potential for not-so-great things also arises when children have their social and self esteem needs met by individuals outside their primary network of family and caregivers. Many years ago, a very dear and more mature colleague said to me, “if we aren’t there to teach our kids values and help them make decisions, other kids will…and that is a scary prospect.” At the time, my kids were preschoolers and while hers were college-aged. In retrospect, I didn’t fully appreciate how well she understood parents’ roles in their adolescents’ lives. There are times that the responsibility haunts me, particularly when I think about the influences electronic media have on our kids who seek a sense of belonging and significance from those venues.
For a large number of kids, school and family do provide belonging, significance and fun. If they are lucky, extra curriculars like dance, sports, youth or church groups offer other places social learning and risk taking. For an increasing number of kids, their time outside of school is unstructured – not the unstructured time of years ago which meant pick up soccer or baseball games in the neighborhood, play in one’s back yard or basement, and time just to chill and make our own amusement. Current research and media reports document an increase in the amount of screen time for most children,which often leads to kids searching for groups or virtual friends to provide a sense of belonging, significance and fun. Electronic games, on-line games or social networking and even email/instant messaging are the new social communities for many kids (and adults).
While it’s clear that social lives of the future will have some electronic element, I’d argue that our kids are not well-equipped nor wired to navigate cyberspace without caring and vigilant adults to help provide structure and boundaries. There are many things our kids can — and do — teach themselves, and these provide wonderful opportunities for growth and self confidence. Learning to tie a shoe, figuring out how to assemble a power point, making breakfast are all tasks many kids can successfully self-teach. Most parents realize that anything with a serious potential for bodily harm requires scaffolding and/or direct supervision. But what about activities which take our children virtually outside the physical boundaries of our home and care? Social networking and the internet may seem safe, but in truth, without our direct supervision, these put our children at risk to outside predators and often take the place of real life relationships, life skills, and healthy self-esteem. A false sense of belonging, significance and fun can lead to undesirable risk taking with consequences none of us want to consider.
As our children come of age in an age of high tech social circles, they continue to need our guidance and boundaries if they are to acquire social and life skills in safe and age appropriate ways. Parents need to play an active role to stay one step ahead (or at least trot along side) their children on line and to set the boundaries and consequences for when those boundaries are crossed. Even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is reported to be on Facebook so he can monitor his kids’ activities. Your family and the social networks you deem most important should be the driving force in your child’s life, not a virtual game or on-line group or individuals on the internet.
Certainly none among us (parents and teachers) can be there with our children 24/7. We need to trust that the groundwork we’ve laid in providing the physical and safety needs, the sense of belonging and significance we’ve banked along the way, and clear comunication of our values and priorities, will equip our children to make good choices as they enter the larger world. We need to expect they will stumble and make mistakes. We must have the self-restraint to let them pick up the pieces and the courage to employ logical consequences when boundaries are broken. Our role as caregivers is to raise children to be confident, competent and responsible adults – that self-actualization piece Maslov found in exemplary people such as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frederick Douglas.