If you matter to someone, there is always
a glimmer of hope
The author suggests that by combining the power of a supportive relationship with school-wide Character Counts! initiatives, we can reclaim youth and build positive school cultures.
‘Never discourage anyone ... who continually makes
progress, no matter how slow...’
Progress. We can only hope that the youth with whom we work will make progress, for many are in a perpetual state of crisis. The crises that these young people face often result in scars that last a lifetime — scars that occasionally leave their imprint upon others in society as a result.
The crises that cause these scars may occur in the home, behind closed drapes and locked doors: when a parent screams that a child is useless or does not appreciate anything; when a parent slams the child against the wall; when a parent inappropriately touches a child. When these things happen on a regular basis, the child begins to develop the social skills necessary to protect the secret, the parent or caregiver, and the child. These skills allow the child to appear normal and happy, as though there is nothing out of the ordinary in his life. Sadly, much remains hidden from sight.
Sometimes we have no way of knowing that a child is in this state of perpetual crisis until it is much too late. Perhaps the child will grow into a gang-banger, loyal only to those within the circle. Maybe the child has begun to victimize another child who is smaller and weaker so that she may feel like the powerful one. Or, the child turns the pain inward and turns to self-mutilation in a futile attempt to feel something other than numbness.
Given that these things may remain unknown to us for some time, we may see children and youth acting out in various ways before we make the connection. We may see the delinquent student whose only consistency in school is tardiness and late or unfinished assignments. We may deal on a regular basis with classroom and household disruptions or power struggles, and occasionally we bear scars that faintly echo the pain that the child holds inside when he or she becomes physically violent.
To understand what may cause a young person to make these choices, we must first try to understand how she or he views the world. We all have choices in our lives, and we make those choices based upon what we know. What we know is based upon our reality, and people have their own individual realities through which they view the world. That said, we look at the facts and, based on those facts, we choose the option that is the most attractive to us.
Unfortunately, there are many children who do not have enough facts to make these decisions, and when we see delinquent behavior over and over, we wonder why this pattern continues. Maybe eventually we throw our hands into the air and give up on the child. These are likely the same children who have been told repeatedly — perhaps by their parents — that they are useless to society, worthless, zeros, nothings, do not count, are not important, only cause trouble, are stupid, and will never amount to anything. These are harsh words from the people who are supposed to love unconditionally. Parents are the first people we learn to trust. And no matter what they say, no matter what they do, we trust them innately. We trust that they speak the truth
In an ideal society, parents and parent figures are supportive of their children. They speak truths of love and kindness to others. The ideal parents are not emotionally, verbally, physically, or sexually abusive, and the choices they make are in the best interests of their children. Children see this and thus develop their personalities and character based upon who their parents are and what their parents teach them. Most of these children are then able to develop strong character; they work hard to become an asset to society and contribute to making the world a better place.
So what happens when those truths that parents teach their children are words of criticism, unkindness, and cruelty? The children believe those also. And so begins a learning process that allows these children to grow up believing that this is acceptable behavior. The reality is that this is not just happening to one or two children but to many. Instead of dealing with a few “problem kids,” we are breeding an entire culture of distrust, hurt, and violence.
Sadly, these are the youth who often are tagged as hopeless: “She’s just like her mother, and her grandmother, and her great-grandmother...,” or “His dad is a junkie, too; there’s nothing we can do; he’ll figure it out on his own someday.” But what if “he” never figures it out, not for a lack of trying, but rather a lack of skills to help him cope, to help him overcome, to help him “figure it out”? What if “she” never had someone in her life to let her know that there was another way of life, a more productive way of life, a way of life she doesn’t have to fear but instead could embrace?
That is where we come in. These are the children who present a unique choice to us: We can see what these young people show us and then throw up our hands in frustration. Or, we can take a look beyond the behaviors and see the positive things that these children — these human beings — have to offer despite their circumstances. Their parents may mold them, but molds can be shattered and goodness can shine through the cracks.
There is a relatively new movement taking place in the education field that is geared towards these young people. Character Education focuses on helping troubled youth develop character. According to the International Child and Youth Network (Montez, 2001), there is some dispute as to whether or not school is the right place for children to learn about ethics and character. But if children are not able to develop their character at home, where can they develop their character? And why not at both school and home?
One program geared specifically towards schools is the Character Counts! Youth ethics initiative, developed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics. This program talks about the six pillars of character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Each pillar is associated with a color:
trustworthiness is blue, “true blue”;
respect is yellow or gold, like the Golden Rule;
responsibility is green, for being responsible for a garden/ finances;
fairness is orange, like dividing an orange into equal shares;
caring is red, like a heart;
and citizenship is purple, representing
(Josephson Institute of Ethics, 2004b).
The idea of the program is to enable schools to help their students become more ethical individuals, and so far, the program has met with some success. For example, according to the Character Counts! website, in Montcalm County Michigan, at Blanchard Elementary School, which had a student population of 250, there were 106 discipline referrals in the fall of 1996-97 and 113 in the spring of the same year. The following school year, 1997-98, there were only 68 discipline referrals in the fall and 34 in the spring. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, they began implementing the Character Counts! initiative in the fall of 1994. During the first 20 days of that school year, there were 91 recorded incidents of physical violence that took place. A year later, that number was reduced to 26 incidents in the same time frame (Josephson Institute of Ethics, 2004a).
It appears that once students learn about character, and how to develop it within, they want to become better individuals. They want to overcome and surpass the past that has held them back. But then, if they want to succeed, where does this wanting come from? From where do these so-called “troubled kids” get their drive to succeed and become better than perhaps even they thought was possible? Maybe while these young individuals are developing their character they are also discovering that they are not starting with nothing; these individuals already have the skills and qualities that they are learning about — albeit skills that perhaps have not yet been nurtured.
Who can nurture these qualities and help a young person develop into a person of strong character? Who can help these kids see that their wanting and their efforts to develop their character are noticed and valued?
The good news is that all it takes is one person to take the time to look within and see the seedlings of character that are already there. The hard news is that there is no easy task, nurturing a young person takes patience and sometimes even stubbornness on our parts. However, the reward is that now there is a child who believes in himself. The big question is who can break the mold and see the strong character inside the individual? The small answer is, it could be anyone but it must be someone.
A respected teacher, counselor, caseworker, mentor, psychologist, or even a grandparent or the parent or friend could be the one who is willing to not judge, not listen to those who say “she’s promiscuous just like her sister” or “his father’s in prison; he’s not to be trusted either.” This supportive person will point out the young person’s successes rather than failures. Even though progress is seemingly slow, it steadily continues to demonstrate this person’s desire to grow.
This is no easy task. And it may seem futile as we wonder if this child is hearing us, or even capable of understanding us after what she’s been through. Sometimes, we can only hope. Cases close, case workers change jobs, children grow up, we lose touch, but what may not necessarily be lost is the influence that we’ve had on a child. When that child looks back, he may still hear his parent’s voice in his head saying, “You’re worthless, I hate you, you’re not good at anything....” But perhaps right after he remembers those words, he will hear an enthusiastic voice telling him, “You are a good person. Don’t hide your talents from the world! You will succeed at whatever you put your mind to. You matter to me.”
Can we undo the damage that has been done? Of course
not entirely, nothing can be totally undone. But we can work with what
is already there — those qualities that no one has noticed yet, those
that have been smothered at an early age; if we nurture those, the
possibilities of what may grow are endless. Perhaps this child, this
individual, will begin to notice that she does not have to sell her body
on the streets for cash just like her mother, that there are other paths
she can take in her life. We need to remember that it only takes one
person to make the decision to look for the potential in a child. Then,
our hope of the child’s making progress can turn into a reality.
Josephson Institute of Ethics. (2004a). The evidence that Character Counts! Works. Retrieved December 6, 2004, from: . pdf
Josephson Institute of Ethics. (2004b). The six pillars of character. Making Ethical Decisions. Retrieved December 6, 2004 from: http: //www. charactercounts. org/defsix. html
Montez, R., IV. (2001). Teaching ethics to troubled kids: New ways. International Child and Youth Care Network. Retrieved December 6, 2004 from: http://www.cycnet.org/today2001/today010903.html
This feature: Rynders, Lesley. (2008). If you matter to someone, there is always a glimmer of hope. Child and Youth Care Work, 26, 3. pp. 8-10.