This is not an easy explanation – please, indulge me. I promise to make sense of it at the end.
For a century or so now, many experts have argued about what is more instrumental in determining a person’s fate: their nature (genetic predispositions) or nurture (the environment in which they are raised). Many experts today agree that there is some sort of a mixture of the two. I am not attempting to determine where this balance lies: I am simply making some observation that when very different social expectations are placed on young people, their very sense of ‘self’ – as defined with respect to society, how they belong, and so on, will be very different. And, that these grown ups will have very, very different expectations of their role in society and the role of society in their lives.
Let me use some examples…
Imagine a life in a village. Life is not so easy, and ‘everyone’ has to pitch in to help.
Most childcare is done through family: depending on the birthrate, either through immediate (nuclear) family, or by extended family. In these scenarios, the children would (usually) be in a group of 5-10 kids, either siblings, or siblings and cousins – looked after by their mother or a close female relative. Within this group, there would be kids of varying ages: from infants on up. It would be unusual for this group to have ‘many’ kids of exactly the same age.
Because the kids are of varying ages, there are differing expectations placed on them: the older ones are expected to help/be protective of/mentor the younger ones. This is very important, for several reasons.
It set up a ‘natural pecking order’ – one that was clear, obvious and acceptable: the older kids were higher up the social ladder than the younger ones. The expectations of them were higher – but, this went hand-in-hand with their increased prestige and social status within the group. Yes, the kids were all expected to learn skills – from the adults, as well as from the older kids. Not wanting to be surpassed in skills by the younger ones was an important motivator for learning and perseverance…
But, and this is perhaps most important, there were small, incremental successes. Every time a child held a younger sibling or cousin to calm their crying, every time they would feed the younger ones, or change diapers, or teach them to throw pebbles at the birds eating the harvest, or how to make a whistle from a willow twig – this would be an accomplishment.
These accomplishments will each – taken separately – be very small. But that does not make them unimportant! Together, these accomplishments add up. And
It is precisely through these small accomplishments that the person will self-define: each one builds the child’s self-confidence, confirming their important role in their social group, giving worth to their membership in that group. It gives them a sense of ‘ worthy belonging’.
And let’s not kid ourselves – we all have a need to belong, we all feel better when we know we are needed!
Of course, if one’s skills in a particular field are great, that individual may ‘skip up’ a few rungs in the social order. And, some societies only open specific roles to boys or girls, which may be detrimental to specific individuals. I do not deny that, nor do I claim this system is ‘perfect’. I simply comment on it, observing that in a small social group of children of varying ages, the social hierarchy/order is relatively easy to establish and learn for a young child, and that one’s expectations of ‘how to live and fit in’ are in accepting help/guidance from those ‘higher up’ the hierarchy, and in being protective of and being expected to help those lower down on that ladder. This develops both a sense of worth and reciprocity towards the group, but also of empathy with the other kids who will grow up into one’s peers.
In other words, this child grows up expecting society where reciprocity is the social norm and each individual is expected to be an active participant in the giving and receiving and will have a healthy sense of self-worth and connectedness with their society.
Now, let us consider another child, growing up in a society which is structured very differently….
Parents are expected to work in a structured environment, away from home. From an early age, children go to nursery school/kindergarten.
There, in order to facilitate ‘learning’ at ‘age-appropriate level’, they are grouped by age: each group of 15-50 children of the same age are put together into a ‘class’ and assigned one or more ‘teachers’, possibly with several ‘assistants’ or ‘helpers’. Thus, the adult-to-child ratio may be only slightly higher than in the previous scenario (it may even be the same), but the group itself is homogeneously composed of ‘peers’.
This sets up a very different social dynamic…
They are all peers!
There is no ‘easy’ way to establish a ‘pecking order’.
This, in itself, is rather disturbing to even young kids who generally need to understand where they fit in, socially. Interacting with a large number of ‘peers’, introduced and maintained as equals, is not natural to our psychological development – at least, not at the age of 3-5 years! So, this can be very, very confusing and instead of ‘age’ or ‘achievement’, social order in such a group (and there is always a social hierarchy in every group of humans) is decided by innate ‘dominance’ or ‘aggression’.
In addition, ‘mentoring’ or any attempt at ‘helping’ from one student to another is actively discouraged by the ‘teachers’ and their assistants as ‘bossiness’, ‘interference’ or even ‘bullying’ – even if it is offered with the best of intentions, in the most positive manner.
Instruction – of every student, in every aspect – is the exclusive domain of the teachers and their assistants, usually at a ‘common time’ and in a ‘common way’. It is simply ‘not the job’ of any child to help another – and such empathy-building activity is discouraged or even punished. Only ‘the teacher’ is permitted to ‘teach’, only ‘the teacher’ or ‘assistants’ are allowed to help!
This creates an environment where each child is a passive recipient of care and instruction. They ‘receive’ – and are punished for any attempt to ‘give’. Their self-worth is derived exclusively from their obedience to the adults in authority and their completion of ‘assignments’. Even the skill level at which the assignment is completed is often not evaluated on the grounds that this would stigmatize the less-competent students and thus discourage ‘learning’: simple obedient completion of the task, even in a sub-standard manner, in complete compliance with authority, is rewarded in todays kindergartens.
What is more – due to fears of accusations of sexual improprieties, teachers and their assistants are now (in Ontario Public School Kindergartens) not permitted to touch the students – even if the child falls down and is bleeding – beyond slapping on of a band-aid. If the child is upset, no hug is permitted to help calm him or her down. It is truly ‘an institutional experience’!
How different an adult will this child grow up to be, from the one in the earlier example?
‘Common Sense’ is often defined as ‘everything we learn before the age of 16’. Similarly, ‘everything we learn before the age of 5’ defines our ‘self-perception’, especially with respect to the society we live in, and our expectations of the ‘proper’ way to relate to it.
Thus, as the child who could expect protection and help from his/her older siblings/friends/family members – but who was equally expected to help and protect the younger ones – grows up, he or she is, on some sub-conscious level, expecting that in order to be good members of society, he/she needs to both take and give. In return for this reciprocity, they feel needed and connected…they know how they ‘fit in’ – even if only on a deep, non-verbalized level.
Similarly, the child who grows up, from an early age, strictly as a passive recipient of instructions and who is expected to be rewarded for obedience, or ‘performing assigned tasks’ rather than actively interacting in a social give-and-take (often being severely punished for trying to establish a socially reciprocal relationship with other kids) has, at a deep, subconscious level an expectation that they have to perform the minimum – and nothing beyond the minimum – designed tasks and that all else will be done for them. This programming is so deep in the sub-conscious, it is not consciously perceived. Rather, these are the ‘natural expectations’ children raised this way have.
At least, most of them do.
Which is why children raised in ‘kindergartens’ do not have the same perception of what constitutes their ‘self-worth’ as children raised in family or extended-family-type settings. It is not that they are somehow bad or lazy: just that from their earliest age, they were taught that reciprocity is punished and doing the minimum effort and passively accepting having all their physical needs taken care of is what society wants them to do. And, being the social creatures we are, we get ‘primed’ this way – and it never even occurs to us that there is something to question….
To the contrary: we see all people who behave in other ways as ‘needing to be punished’. After all, when we tried to be different, to help others, to hug a friend, to be ourselves, to show we can do something better than everyone else around us – we were punished! We were punished for ‘showing off’ or for ‘being bossy’ or for ‘not obeying’ or, just, for ‘not being passive’!
Is is any surprise that we have grown up into a generation which has strong feelings of entitlement – entitlement to be taken care of, to be passive recipients of care – and of great resentment towards anyone who tries to ‘show everyone up’ and succeeds? And that we are not even aware that these are ‘programmed’ values, because they seem so ‘natural and ‘universal’ to us?
Yes, I have not expressed my meaning very eloquently, perhaps not even as accurately as I tried to.
Still, please, think about it….