If you posed this question to a fourth grader, what do you suppose their answer would be? “If a person were invited to speak to your class today and you saw them walking down the hall, how would you know that they are ‘somebody!’?” Better still, if you asked that same question to a high school student or to someone you work with, what do you think his or her response would be?
This question, seemingly so simple, deals with our notion of self and self-worth. From an early age most seem to have an innate desire to be valued, to have self-worth, which is often measured by value others place on us. From an early age most people are taught that their value is defined by how they look, what they have, how they behave. This is reinforced by television, radio, and other external sources. Children learn these lessons early, often from their parents. Many studies have shown that children who are praised and taught their internal value (or spiritual value) have higher self-esteem than those children who are told they will never amount to anything or are taught that value is defined by materialism. It’s obvious to most rational adults that we can create a direct connection to what we teach and value. What we teach and value can, however, be double-edged swords.
Let’s go back to our original question and see what the children said. In several classes the question above was posed and the top answers were: (1) you would know they were “somebody” by the car they drove; (2) you would know they were “somebody” by the clothes they wore; (3) you would know they were “somebody” by the shoes on their feet and (4) lastly by their watch. Note that all of the evidence that a person was “somebody” centered on material trappings. Very seldom did one of the students respond; “you would know ‘somebody’ by how they treated another.”
Unfortunately, the students had, by the fourth grade, been conditioned to determine human value by material possessions. The notion of self and self-value was being established by surroundings, not internal spiritual worth. We found that the older the students got, the more they were connecting value and acceptance with material trappings. This creates a foundation for what appears today to be an ethical conundrum. We see ethic breeches all around, in fact, reported in abundance. People making the wrong choices – suffering negative consequences – and yet, recent studies show that teens would act unethically to get ahead.
The initial responses written in this article were made by fourth graders in North Carolina back in 1996. On this day they were addressed by three people, who by all accounts, were defined as “nobody.” These children were addressed by inmates from Federal Prison. Each inmate shared their personal story in hopes that some impression might be made early to sway the opinion of the child and give support to making positive choices.
“Perhaps, if we can help others see the consequences of the choices we made, they won’t make the same mistakes,” stated one inmate named Ted. While the inmates called them mistakes, society called them crimes and all were ethic breeches. There was a passion in their hearts to reach out and provide truth about unethical choices.
The messages were powerful and, make no mistake, the children – especially at that age – took it all in. Exposed to a hard dose of reality in the fourth grade, these children today would be in college. One can only hope that the effort to touch these lives early had some influence. It is true that once taught, it is in the brain and at some point the truth they heard that day will be a reminder to them as they make ethical choices everyday. Certainly, as the CEO of Deloitte said, “Supporting education and dialogue about ethical decision-making is an important way we can encourage kids.” He’s right!
On a crisp October day in 1995, Chuck Gallagher took 23 physical steps… opened a door… and began a new experience that was life-changing. This series of articles explores that experience and the success that followed… while involving the reader in ways that could be life-altering for them. Gallagher captures the heart of the audience in an honest way that deals with human emotion.