Friday, September 13, 2013

Warning: Your Thoughts Have Power

Why do some children from disadvantaged homes materialize well being while others fall into a gray zone of tedious survival or worse?

First, one would have to define terms. In our "more is better culture" the immediate association is that poverty is the primary disadvantage while affluence promotes well being. True, adequate medical care, nourishing food, decent housing, a safe neighborhood and access to schools with books and seats does provide some baseline insurance. But realistically, outward material things are "not enough."

In 1960, my mother did her PhD thesis on this very subject; she targeted children from Harlem, which was then a prison without walls for the descendants of slaves (although it was also a breeding ground for amazing music and other art forms). All of the young ones in her study came from disadvantaged environments in that their basic life needs were not regularly met. And yet some excelled in academics while others fell behind, unable to hold onto numbers and letters, an all important skill in the Information Age.

Her findings? It was the expectation of the teacher which separated the wheat from the chaff. For the little ones who inspired the teacher's positive reinforcement, they thrived like baby plants in a greenhouse. Those who were deemed undesirables followed the pattern of a fulfilled prophesy from the authority figure of the classroom; as they were no good in the teacher's eyes, they became no good at what they were there to do.

This all important finding, duplicated by others over the years, applies to animals as well. Elephants, for example, learn much more quickly when they are rewarded with treats for doing their schtick correctly. Those that are poked, hit, stabbed, or starved by their trainers sometimes give their owners their comeuppance - in the form of death by trampling.

One could apply this formula to all sorts of venues of human endeavor, from child rearing to geopolitics, to what you tell yourself about yourself (notice, key concept here). Thus the cautionary advice, given mostly to myself, and now offered up to "others" -

 Warning: your thoughts have power!

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