Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

The Power of Community: Defining Ourselves and Our Value

One of the most powerful forces that influences child development, aside from family, is community. Using Bronfenbrenner’s theory of development, we can see that communities, ranging from soccer teams to schools and churches to neighborhoods, provide guidance and modeling for children as they grow and learn about what it means to be a member of that community. I have been powerfully reminded of this fact this week-end. Some of the students and faculty members that are a part of my university’s community were in a terrible bus accident. As people have been grieving, they have also been coming together to support, care for, and encourage each other.

Communities that we are a part of as children shape our ideas about what it means to be a person of power and worth. This is why it is so critical for us to think about the messages that children are getting about what it means to be valuable when it comes to their biological sex. One of the reasons that participation in groups such as sports teams, scouting, or academic clubs is so important for girls is because these groups, by virtue of their existence, tend to send girls a very different message about what makes them valuable than they may be getting from media and marketing. The same can be said of boys. When they are able to be a part of communities that encourage them to express their talents and work hard to achieve in those areas rather than seeing their worth tied to their romantic relationships and physical prowess, boys that may not fit into that traditional mold can see their value.

One of my students and friends is on the women’s university soccer team at the school where I teach. She tells me that as she was growing up, her parents emphasized the importance of  character, academics and hard work. She got these same message from the soccer teams that she played on. Instead of worrying about how she looked, she overwhelmingly focused on who she wanted to become in many different areas of her life. The systems of her family and her soccer community worked together to help her see herself as valuable for her talents and her work ethic rather than her physical appearance.

This is why it is so critical for parents and other caring adults to pay attention to the communities that children and adolescents are a part of. Community values are very powerful. When girls become connected with groups that promote ones worth as deriving from physical appearance and sex appeal, they will begin to adopt those values themselves. So what can parents and adolescents do to make sure that the communities that they are a part of are healthy? Here are some ideas:

  • Pay attention to both the stated and unstated messages about where a person’s value is found. If through their actions a group is continually focusing on appearance or other surface qualities, you may want to consider finding a new group to be a part of.
  • Notice how group members treat one another. Community is powerful, and you want the communities that you and your children are a part of to be positive ones. If you notice that a group is continually hurting each other, bad mouthing other members, and so forth, you might need to step away.
  • Notice how group members treat outsiders. We want the groups that we’re a part of to be ones that make a positive impression on the world and treat those outside the group with respect. Of course for sports teams a little friendly rivalry is fine, but competition should be based on fairness and respect.
  • Pay attention to how you and your child feel when you are with the group. If your child is feeling anxious, seems agitated, or doesn’t act like themselves when they are with this group, it may not be the best place for them. Find another group with a common interest and friendly feel to it.
Our communities can be great support systems for our children as they are growing and learning about who they are and what makes them important. Make sure that the communities that you or your child are a part of provide them with positive encouragement to be their best selves rather than limiting their vision for themselves. 
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