When I was in graduate school, I had a chance to express my research interests and what I chose to study was a negotiation between me and my dissertation director. He had the things he was interested in and I had mine. I knew that I wanted to study something having to do with examining the role of the self-concept and human communication.
Sounds pretty boring doesn’t it?
I remember my time in Lexington, Ky. in the summers [since I had to do this degree around a full-time teaching job] and an episode that occurred in a public park. My wife, son and I were in the park to have some playtime and I saw something that imprinted on my brain. I observed a distraught mother pick up her child and remove him from the park like he was a sack of potatoes. His head was pointed behind her and he was a very “unhappy camper.” As he squawked, I remember thinking that this was a very uncaring way to transport a two or three year old.
None of us are “perfect parents.” Kids don’t come with instruction manuals and as we make an effort to raise our children, we all make our share of mistakes. Of course, I did not know the woman or the child, nor did I know the circumstances of this child’s removal [indeed, maybe he was such a bad child that he deserved to be handled like potatoes]. But this event, at this time of my life, made me think about the effect that “significant others” have on how we grow to see ourselves.
I knew from my study that parents are the most important factors in a child’s early development. A mother and father can bond with a child and from the very beginning they can begin to construct a child’s sense of self. Over time a child will turn to other significant others like siblings, relatives, teachers, babysitters, principals etc. who can imprint their views on a child. We all can relate to this experience.
Depending on what those interactions are, they can really impact how a child sees the world and most importantly how a child sees himself or herself.
Children with positive interactions may be able to develop a positive self-esteem based on positive communications. This is simplistic but if you are told over and over again that you can do something well, you begin to believe that your behavior is acceptable and you repeat that behavior, to ravishing reviews from your significant others; hence a positive self-esteem.
The opposite effect is the child who is told repeatedly that he or she cannot perform well. Of course their confidence is eroded, they exhibit undesirable behaviors, and their significant others inform them they are failing.
I believe in reality that none of us really knows how we really are. We are “constructed” by our life experiences and the reflected appraisal of others. An adult may be convinced that they cannot draw a straight line because they have been told their artistic renderings are awful. Are they really? Maybe they are or maybe they aren’t. I suspect that if an artist is told over and over their work is junk they may begin to see their work as junk.
Pastor Labberton says as human beings “we are inescapably meaning-makers, and we grow up and mature in an intricate process of engagement, reflection, encounter, testing and trying to see and know ourselves and one another” .
Depending on how we develop and where we develop, we begin to see other human beings as our equals, our subordinates or our superiors. Some take their status as superior very seriously and when encountering subordinates they don’t want to associate with them. Instead of learning from their encounter, they judge these less powerful people as inferior, uneducated, and “low class.”
This is a problem when the less fortunate among us need our help. When we may be called on to help others, our positive self-esteem should not get in the way, but sadly it does.
Does this fly in the face of what we are to do as Christians?
“For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’