Excerpt: Imagine; No Child Left Invisible by Shelja Sen
Noted adolescent psychologist and family therapist Shelja Sen’s book examines how we can build emotionally safe spaces for creative learning. In this excerpt, she explains how the stories we tell about our children can shape their livesbooks Updated: Dec 08, 2017 20:26 IST
I have always been fascinated by stories. When I was a child, every night my grandfather would tell us colourful stories of the mighty Krishna. He made up most of these stories on the spur of the moment, where more than a god, Krishna was a superhero. I grew up with the magic of listening and reading stories, the wonder
of which stays with me till today. I tried recreating it with my children when they were little but was not very successful. A role that Amit, my imaginative husband who has a knack for storytelling, took on so beautifully. So, I accept that I am not a storyteller, but I continue to be a passionate story finder. I like to find stories in every person I meet, especially little children and young people whom I meet every day.
Maybe this is the reason why I love being a therapist. Every day I hear different stories, some that fill me with wonder, joy and awe, and then there are stories that leave me pained, helpless and – yes, again – profoundly awed.
In this chapter, we reflect on three important questions. How are these stories built and spread? How are these stories propagated in schools? What impact do they have on children?
How are these stories built and spread?
As I explained in the introduction, human beings are meaning makers. We want to connect dots and make sense of our experiences. One way we do this is through stories. Stories provide a framework or lens for meaning making. The stories we tell about ourselves and about others shape our lives and the choices we make.
To explain this better and simplify this very complex topic I will talk about the three components of how stories are created – disgracefull, wow and language.
Stories are the fabric that creates core identities. Core identities are very deep; they go into the essence of our being. Our stories and core identities are built in the landscape of the socio-cultural-political context. In each society, there are certain stories that are valued and exalted more than others. These become dominant and powerful stories and are dependent on where you are placed in the social hierarchy and how privileged you are. An acronym provided by John Burnham, a family therapist, to explain this play of power in our society is disgrace – disability, intelligence, sexual orientation, gender, race, age, culture and ethnicity. These are the elements that decide where you fit in the power ladder. I prefer disgracefull – as our ‘finances’, ‘useful contacts’ and ‘looks’ make a lot of difference to our identity or narrative. An astute colleague added the last ‘l’ for language, which is another definitive factor that decides where we are placed in the pecking order.
All of us are prone to doing the mental rearrangement of this social hierarchy in our minds, most of the time at a subconscious level when we meet people. It is almost like a primitive territorial dance that animals perform to mark their territory or to show their superiority in the food chain pyramid.
The messages that the child receives from birth become the threads from which the stories are woven. These messages are the material that builds our beliefs, which inadvertently carve the core identities or narratives that we live by. The child is like a little scientist encoding and decoding messages coming from his environment.
‘She is smiling at me she likes me.’ ‘I got such an applause for taking that step, I can make things happen.’ ‘I was soothed when I was in pain, I am loved.’ These deep beliefs of worthiness, Lovability and ability are obviously not done at a conscious level. These messages are being received and imbibed all the time, and somewhere at a cellular level, these core identities and narratives are taking shape.
In our human social world, the way the child experiences this world and starts piecing it together to build her narratives or identities is through wow, an acronym I like to use.
Worthy – I am worthy as I am now!
Worthiness is an essential vitamin that every child, every human being needs. Worthy of being loved, feeling joy, being respected, valued and getting recognition. It goes deep into our being and strengthens our core. It is not dependent on my doing or achieving something but just for being. An unconditional acceptance for who I am. The other way to express this is I am enough. Imagine if the child’s narrative or core belief was that I am worthy and I am enough. Not when I get better grades, or win prizes or behave perfectly but as I am now.
Original – I am unique, and there is nobody like me in this world.
I am valued for who I am, and I do not have to be like anybody else to be loved. I am different, and I am fi ne as I am. We adults play a large part in helping children build that sense of uniqueness and cherishing it. We can do this by letting go of the mental image or fantasy of how we want the child to be and accept and celebrate the child as she is wired.
Welcome – I am accepted and I belong.
All of us have a deep need to belong, to be welcomed, accepted as we are. We are hardwired to seek connections, and to be loved. There is a big difference in belonging fi in. When you have a sense of belonging, you know you are accepted as you are. Whereas, when you are trying to fit in, you feel that you must act in a certain way to make space for yourself. I can be myself and I will be accepted.
The way we talk to our children become their inner voices
The way we talk about them become their life stories
Language is the thread through which we weave these stories. The way the child gets the sense of wow – I am worthy, I am original and I am welcomed – through the way we speak to them and about them.
It is important to keep in mind that when I say language, I also mean non-verbal communication – the tone of our voice, eye contact, facial expressions, our complete body language. The most painful thing is that though we need to be most mindful and sensitive about the way we talk to children, we end up doing just the opposite.
‘You are so dumb.’
‘At this rate you will not get anywhere in life.’
‘I am so ashamed of you.’
We would never think of using this kind of language with our closest friends or our spouse or other family members. But we do not think twice before lashing it out at our kids. All ostensibly for their own good.
The three dimensions together build what I like to call Pyramid. Imagine an inverted pyramid where people at have a range of rich stories available to them while bottom have thin, sparse stories at their disposal. It is the dimensions of disgracefull, wow and language that decide where we find space in this Power Pyramid.
A white, rich, well-known, handsome, intelligent, English-speaking heterosexual male is the global archetype of success whereas a poor, uneducated, female with a disability (let’s not even talk about her sexuality) from an underdeveloped country is the prototype of failure.
Even at the school level, Power Pyramid becomes the framework for deciding where you would fit in the social hierarchy. An able, athletic, intelligent, good-looking (‘fair and lovely’), English speaking, heterosexual male from a rich family with high contacts (and a healthy dose of wow) will be placed high up on the social ladder (clichéd popular kid) whereas a child from an economically weaker section (EWS) or another child with a learning disability or other mental health problems might struggle at the bottom rungs (or what in school lingo goes by ‘social rejects’).
What Spreads These Single Stories in Schools?
Barbara Myerhoff – renowned scholar in the field of visual anthropology whom I admire a lot – describes these thin stories, as ‘broken identities’. When children grow up with thin stories they internalize them as ‘truths’ about themselves. Let’s look at the way we are building and spreading these problem-saturated, internalized stories and broken identities in school. It is only when we understand how we are damaging our children can we take steps to reconstruct their broken identities or stories, one stitch at a time.
I remember when I started working with children, there were certain profiles I worked well with. They were all bright, sprightly, articulate, expressive, and I connected to them instantly. As a young therapist, it made me feel very good about myself, got me accolades from my seniors and heartfelt gratitude from the parents. On the other hand, I would notice that I tended to get impatient, a little irritable and restless when I worked with children who did not fit this desirable profile. I was quick to label them as ‘slow’, ‘difficult to work with’ or ‘just not willing to try’. If the child did not improve it was easy to blame it on him or his parents. I never said it aloud, but it played out in my head all the time.
It took me a little time to notice the pattern but still, I tried to brush it off. It’s not very easy to accept our prejudices. It took a fair amount of honest self-refl ection to face my gremlins. Over the years I have worked through and got rid of most of these, but there are still times when these thoughts do surface, and mindfully I observe them and let them go.