Friday, April 25, 2008

Why So Many Kids Go Wrong

Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.
- Albert Camus, French writer (1913-1960)

Well, I do, Albert, so where are you so I can refute your statement?

Seriously, Camus was right, some people do go to extensive lengths to be considered normal by others. But why?

We are social animals. As such we have standards, mores and rules/laws by which people must conduct their affairs so that our society does not descend into chaos. When we deal with a clerk in a store, for example, we have an idea of what to expect from that person, as the clerk does for us.

Two or three decades ago (depending on the location) a movement began to make people in wheelchairs have access to every building they may need to enter. That made sense for a medical building, for example, because someone in a wheelchair would certainly need to visit a doctor eventually.

People in wheelchairs wanted to be treated like everyone else and have access everywhere someone with two working legs would have. To them, normal meant having the same rights or access as those who could walk.

Striving to be normal goes much deeper than that. A child who is socially underdeveloped may work very hard to be like the rest of the kids, but that child can never be "normal" in a social setting. The child may seem to be a loner, may stutter, may remain quiet with others around, may agree with the leader of the group most often, will likely not do well with schoolwork, but try as he or she might they will not be able to be like the others, normal in a social setting.

Being socially underdeveloped as a child carries through adulthood, sometimes through life itself. Many socially underdeveloped kids eventually learn the social skills their peers did as children, whereupon they can interact in social settings like others, thus be "normal." That catching up socially requires a huge amount of effort, something Camus says that few understand.

Certainly the peers of a socially underdeveloped child don't understand. They consider the kid weird or strange. They nitpick to find faults with the child that may not exist in reality so they can talk about the odd one in their own "normal" groups.

Often a socially underdeveloped child will be bullied by another socially underdeveloped child. Bullies are classic cases of social underdevelopment, perhaps with a touch of maldevelopment. They need social interaction with peers, but have no idea how to achieve it. They want to be normal, but can't, so they lash out at the weakest among them, which is usually another socially underdeveloped child. The same happens with adult bullies and their victims.

Children who are underdeveloped emotionally have similar adjustment problems. They tend to be punished for their deficiencies and the resulting behaviours, as socially underdeveloped children are as well. What we don't understand in odd or strange children usually causes them to violate social norms, thus we punish them to teach them how to act normally.

Yes, we punish children and adults for being socially and/or emotionally underdeveloped and acting out because they can't cope with their inability to be normal with their peers.

By punishing them as children we ensure that they will not likely rise to the level of development of their peers because they will believe that it's impossible for them to be normal. They will always feel left out, different.

Almost every adult in a prison is either socially or emotionally underdeveloped or maldeveloped, or both. At that age they have been broken for so long that society could not afford to do the necessary psychological repairs, so we put them behind bars and forget about them. Pretend they don't exist in our society. Call them bad, social offenders.

It may be true that most children are born with the same potential. That potential is very different among them by the age they enter the school system because of their different opportunities (or lack thereof) to develop socially and emotionally as well as they do physically and intellectually in the intervening few years.

Trouble begins in the school system. Teachers are not only not granted permission to work to develop children's social and emotional skills according to the curriculum, they may be denied permission (in most classroom settings) by the administration. "There isn't time." "Stick to the curriculum."

By the time kids enter school, many parents believe they have taken their children as far as they need to socially and emotionally, so they leave it up to the school to carry on. The school can't do much in most cases.

Every socially or emotionally inappropriate behaviour of adults can be traced back to social or emotional (or both) deficits when they were children. No one wants to do this and few will try because it upsets everyone who prefers to deny any responsibility for underdevelopment or maldevelopment of social miscreant adults, when they were children.

Society can manage social and emotional development of children the same way it manages intellectual and physical development. In fact, plans to do this are fairly easy and very cheap to implement.

Before anything can be changed, we must admit as a society that we have children who are not receiving assistance with their social and emotional development. Then we can put programs in place to train parents and teachers how to fulfill the rest of their respective roles in raising a child.

Talk about it.

Bill Allin is a sociologist, retired teacher and author of the book Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, as well as the fountain of inspiration for programs related to the TIA program.
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