LOS ALTOS, CA, January 24, 2013 – Is there anything we could have done to prevent this from happening?
It’s a question asked too often these days, most recently following the tragic events near Albuquerque, New Mexico where a 15-year old boy is accused of murdering his parents and three siblings, apparently with plans to continue his shooting rampage at a local Wal-Mart.
Responses range from “we need better-funded mental health programs” to “we need stricter gun laws” to “why should we blame ourselves for the moral failings of others?”
Maybe a better way to answer this question is by first asking another question:
Can our perception and expectation of others – especially children – have a positive impact on their behavior, their mental health, their safety, and the safety of others?
The answer to both questions: Yes. And yes.
Back in 1964 Robert Rosenthal, now a psychology professor at U.C. Riverside, conducted the first systematic study of the link between teacher perception and student achievement. What he found was that the increase in a student’s IQ was proportional to the teacher’s expectation of their projected performance – the so-called Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect.
“If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,” Rosenthal says is a recent NPR interview.
As he describes it, this phenomenon isn’t “magic” or “mental telepathy” but the cumulative effect of a thousand different interactions with the student, each informed by the anticipation of brilliance. For instance, students who were expected to succeed were given more time to answer questions, more feedback, and more approval – not to mention more smiles, more pats on the back, and more nods of approval.
The increased confidence and high self-esteem that naturally results from such a supportive environment is just one of many factors that Mental Health America considers essential for good mental health in a child. It’s also something that all of us have a role in providing, whether or not we have regular contact with kids.
This isn’t to say that we can make the world a safer place by simply thinking that every child we meet is a budding Einstein. But, as Rosenthal and others suggest, there’s something significant to be gained by not assuming that these children are potential delinquents either.
I remember growing up, listening to the Bible story of Jesus healing a boy who was considered “lunatic” (although some consider this word refers to epilepsy and not to any sort of mental derangement). It says, “Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly” (Matt 17:18, New Revised Standard Version).
Certainly there are a lot of ways to look at this narrative. For me what makes the most sense is that Jesus refused to see this kid’s condition as innate, as something to be accepted or, worse, expected.
The story ends with Jesus’ familiar, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” – the implication being that we’re all capable of seeing through even the most egregious labels attached to children these days.
And the result? Although it may be unrealistic to suppose that we’ll never again see an incident of child-instigated violence, there’s reason to believe – and scientific evidence to suggest – that even a slight shift in thought on the part of our country’s adult population could improve the way we treat our children, their mental health, and the safety of our society.
Eric Nelson is a Christian Science practitioner, whose articles on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.
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