Acceptance, Belonging, and Contribution – Keys to a Child’s Identity
by Dr. Kirk Austin
It is not much to look at- just a small bud rising out of the soil. But this bud represents a billion-dollar industry world wide. It is a humble Chinese bamboo shoot. Globally, the plant is eaten for food, converted into paper, fashioned into furniture and manufactured into hard wood flooring. Its versatility seems endless. The farmers who tend the bamboo crop care for it for several years with nothing but a small bud to show for their effort. But in the fifth year the plant grows eighty feet tall in six short weeks. It is an incredible feat. To put that into perspective, it takes the North American pine tree twenty-five years to grow that tall. To the untrained eye, one could assume that there is no growth within the plant for several years. This, however, would be incorrect. Rather, the plant has spent its time, energy and resources building a tremendous root ball to anchor and sustain the plant for its incredible growth. It is what directs the growth of the tree for the duration of its lifespan.
The same is true for a person’s identity. During the initial few years of a person’s life, incredible neural activity is building the brain and nervous systems of a small child. Even before a child can successfully articulate a full sentence, their understanding of their world and themselves actively develops below the surface. Interactions with people and environment help the child to learn more about the world and their place in it. Nurturing adults and stimulating environments can enhance a child’s identity. Unsafe adults and neglecting environments can leave vulnerabilities in the child’s identity.
In our work with children we know that there are certain elements that inform a child’s identity. We think of them as the ABC’s of identity- Acceptance, Belonging and Contribution. Acceptance is a person’s deep desire to be accepted, valued and celebrated as an individual. Each one of us longs to know that we ‘measure up’, that there is something redeeming about us, and that we have value. Whether it is related to our physical make up, or internal characteristic, we all hope to be valued in words and gestures of appreciation. Where Acceptance is individual in nature, Belonging is collective. Belonging is a person’s deep desire to belong to a group. Whether it is connectedness with others based on family relationship, cultural heritage, group identity or interest area, all of us have ‘our people’ that we claim and celebrate as our own. Contribution refers to a person’s deep desire for involvement with the world in a meaningfully way. We want to make a difference. We want to see the result of our action. All of these, when supported and nurtured, help the child to grow and develop in positive ways.
As adults who support vulnerable children, our role is to identify and nurture the ABC’s of each child as they develop. Children’s positive identity development begins with our ‘noticing’. Noticing, is the adults paying attention to what the child is doing and who they are becoming. It is then celebrating these features through our words, our actions and our value-messages. Dr. Shelley Gable has coined the term “active and constructive responding” to refer to the adult’s intentional responses to other’s actions. Rather than just observing a child act kindly to another, an adult would purposefully and positively comment on the behavior. This positive message becomes internalized by the child and becomes part of their self perception.
Helping a child develop a positive identity begins by noticing what is good about the child. Praising a signature strength, a personal characteristic or a personal ability helps the child to feel accepted and acceptable. Recognizing, acknowledging, celebrating and engaging a unique feature of a child may help them to realize that they belong to a larger community. For example, if a child demonstrates an artistic interest or ability, an adult can celebrate the ability thereby offering acceptance. An adult can also help the child learn about or connect to a school’s creative arts program. In this way they may help the child to experience belonging as they begin to see themselves as part of an artistic community. The adult can also promote contribution by engaging the ability toward a meaningful end. For example, if a teacher in the art program has the child develop “thankyou cards” as part of a fund raiser for a worthy cause, the child will believe that their effort made a small difference in the world. In this case the ABC’s will help to promote a positive sense of identity.
Below are some suggestions about how to explore a child’s ABC’s:
Acceptance: At the core of every person is a deep desire to be accepted, valued and celebrated as an individual.
- What is something that you like about yourself?
- What is your favorite personal nick-name?
- What is a personal characteristic that you are thankful for?
- What is your favorite personal memory?
- When have you felt most loved?
- Who is one of your favorite people?
- What’s your favorite color? How does it make you feel?
Belonging: At the core of every person is a deep desire to belong to a group.
- What sports do you like to play?
- What activities do you like to participate in?
- What causes do you care about?
- What groups (political, faith, community, etc) would you give money to?
- What is your favorite hobby?
- Who are “your people”?
- What is your best memory with others?
Contribution: At the core of every person is a deep desire to contribute to the world in a meaningfully way.
- What do you consider to be your best talents?
- What skills do you love to use?
- If you were to create something, what would it be?
- How do you like to spend your spare time?
- What activities make you “come alive”?
- If you volunteered at something meaningful, what would it be?
- What is an accomplishment that you are most proud of?