Building Blocks of the Healthy Human Personality

Dec 2010
33
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Hi everyone, I'm a psychologist and author of two books, the first entitled The Therapist's Use of Self in Family Therapy was published 10 years ago, and the second entitled The Emotional Toolbox: A Manual for Mental Health is currently posted (in its entirety) on my website, http://www.DrBochner.com (nothing for sale there nor any advertising, just a good resource). The article below describes how materialism affects society, and the antedote to that materialism, the values that can be, ideally, built into our children. I hope you'll like it. Please comment and feel free to comment on anything else you see on my website.

From Materialism to Integrity: The Building Blocks of the Healthy Human Personality

by Dr. Dan Bochner

Many articles are written about specific issues in child rearing, but rarely do we find a way to discuss the basic building blocks that are necessary for making children grow into great adults. There are a few essential components that must be cultivated in our children if we are to fashion them into healthy, thriving, connected beings. These components, when properly placed and integrated during childhood, work in unison to help people function both as individuals and within the larger community. Before it's possible to jump into the specific problems any one population might have, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of these basic components and how to ensure that they will be installed properly. The question that is of most importance in child rearing, therefore, is not a question about what is wrong with particular children, but rather, how do we make sure to build integrity in all children?

In answering this general question, it appears that there is an associated general problem area that seems to be a regular correlate to problems with integrity in our society. That one problem area is materialism. Our society is so fast, and materialism runs so rampant at every economic level, that almost all children get most of the things they want with very little effort. Sometimes it’s X-Boxes, sometimes it’s nice clothing or a new pair of Jordans, but most of the time parents do whatever they can to obtain these things in our current society, regardless of whether or not they’re affordable or whether it’s ill-advised to give these things to their children. Sometimes, it seems, we run so fast to attain the things we desire that we forget the more important parts of life. Integrity of character involves one's relation to others in the world, and thus materialism, to the extent that we pursue selfish pleasures, image, and ego, becomes the primary symptom of a lack of integrity.

We need to ask how empty materialistic pursuit grabs a hold of us. What happens, for example, when a person is given everything without appropriate effort? On the other hand, what happens if a person sees that others need make little effort and get everything anyway? Are matters made worse when a person’s parents feel that their children should be given everything as a reward for the parents’ hard work? Are matters made worse when a parent gives their child everything merely due to guilt about what they perceive to be their own failure to succeed? What if, to make matters worse, a child grows up believing that the only worthwhile accomplishments in this world require huge success since that's what they're parents have pursued? On the other hand, what if a child grows up thinking there is no chance they’ll be able to earn the things they want for themselves or their families in a legitimate job? All of these pressures lead people to resentment, laziness, and/or unearned entitlement, and away from integrity of character, as parents and children alike pursue many desires, but not their connection with each other. The current state of materialism pulls us away from one another even as we try to buy our way into each others' hearts.

As has now been well-publicized, most notably quite recently in Madeline Levine’s book, “The Price of Privilege” (2006), the current state of affluent materialism has left many well-to-do children feeling empty, depressed and angry, as they act out either through wild behavior and substance abuse, or equally damaging self loathing and self abuse. Meanwhile, in far less affluent homes, in spite of material possessions provided through great sacrifice, desperation grows as children see their parents working endlessly, or falling hopelessly into debt, while attempting to give their children those things the media and advertisers seem to suggest that every child deserves. These children also turn to wild behavior due to resentment, feelings of emptiness and depression, which show up behaviorally in substance abuse and other forms of self abuse, but also criminal behavior, which can seem to be a legitimate option for getting ahead in a world where so many others can get things so much easier than the underprivileged can.

The antidote to materialism, and the key to integrity, is thus connection and relatedness within society in general, and especially between parents and their children. But this too is a complicated issue. It can be difficult to find time for connection and relatedness based on how we run our lives. Our society has seemingly made material possessions and wealth paramount over relationships. Many people work to achieve greater and greater success even if it means there’s no time for one's family. This is true in spite of the fact that individual or family happiness does not grow once the basic needs have been confidently secured, no matter how much material success is attained. In contrast, many less affluent families, trying to make an honest living, simply don’t find time for family togetherness. Often the stresses they face make their time at home nothing more than independently sought salve for the hardships of the day.

To make matters worse, in many affluent families children must achieve, either academically or in athletics, so that they will accomplish the proper reflection on their parents, who are overly image conscious in their pursuit of an image of success. That is, the pressure on these children exists too much because of how things will look, and not enough because the child is succeeding in pursuit of something he or she truly loves. This pressure leaves children feeling especially disconnected and empty since their external success itself becomes more important than who they truly are or how they really feel. Even worse, however, is the feeling in less affluent families that there is nothing a child can do to distinguish him or herself within the family or within society, since having to struggle, in and of itself, seemingly means that you’re no one important. Regardless of that bereft feeling about one's worth, parents in these families are often too stressed to notice the specialness in any child anyway.

With all that said, if connection and relatedness are indeed the antidote to materialism and the key to integrity, the primary question remains, what exactly must happen within the parent/child relationship in order for the child to grow up to be a healthy, independent, confident, related and caring individual? Healthy development requires that one’s parents strike a healthy balance between protecting their children and allowing for their children's independent action. As part of that balance, parents are, of course, always trying to impart certain values for children to live by. But balancing protection of one’s children with allowing for autonomy, especially while simultaneously trying to make sure your children learn to be good people, is a complicated task.

In the few paragraphs to come, I will delineate the six most important factors in balancing protection of our children with the necessary independence they must develop. These six factors are the most important for all children whether they be affluent or impoverished, but are more or less difficult to accomplish based on a variety of family variables that include economic standing, but also, just as importantly, other variables such as the character in the parents and their ability to work together as a team. These six factors of emotional health, if well-balanced within the parents’ approach to child rearing, lead to integrity and confidence within a child, who will then become a responsible and caring individual within his own relationships, and a well-functioning member of society. When these six factors are truly cultivated in a person, the connection to others and confidence within oneself that they imply, makes rampant materialism a virtual impossibility. These six factors are specialness, humility, hard work, responsibility, gratitude, and a desire for growth.



Being Special

Although these six factors coexist, with none greater than another, perhaps because balance is so important in life, it would be best to make our first factor the one that is at the center of everything when it comes to our children developing integrity. Making sure our children know what it is that makes them a special and important individual is at the fulcrum in balancing all the other factors. Our children learn about their own special attributes through seeing and feeling us listen to them with intent concern for how they feel. I am not implying, however, that we should make children feel like everything they do is special and wonderful. Making children truly aware of their own specialness is much more related to them understanding their very special connection with us than it is to pumping them up without reason.

It is almost as if our reactions to our children are a mirror in which they see themselves. Of course, when we are pleased with them, or when we just feel loving toward them because we do, we can look fondly upon them and demonstrate how much we care by responding intently to their concerns or special attributes. It is equally important, though, to respond with our true feelings even when those feelings are negative. Otherwise, children never attain an accurate understanding of their special connection to us. If our children do something that makes us angry, they must see themselves as the cause of that anger. If they have done something to intentionally harm us or someone else, or if they have been acting selfishly in a way about which they’re unaware, then our irritation is exactly what they should see. That irritation is a true reflection of the impact their behavior has had.

On the other hand, if our irritation occurs in response to them having a legitimate need when we are tired, or because they have asked a legitimate question that for some reason embarrasses us, then the feeling that develops from that interaction is that they are not worth our time or that their legitimate needs and feelings make us irritated. These interactions based on our own selfish nature are unhealthy and diminish the child's true sense of legitimacy or specialness.

A child learns to know him or herself in a healthy way based on healthy reactions from the environment in which he or she lives. The extent to which the environment accurately reflects back to the child his or her importance, impact, and specialness will determine the level to which the child really feels that he is legitimate and has legitimate needs that are equally important to the needs of everyone else. The attributes that make him or her a true individual, a unique person with his or her own great ways of doing things, as well as personal foibles, must be reflected back to the child through the parents’ reactions if the child is to gain a solid understanding of him or herself. When a child's parents are generally successful in responding with spontaneous concern for their child, and yet have adequate concern for themselves in relation to their child as well, the child develops a healthy sense of self, specialness and legitimacy. The child will then, in turn, react within the world with true compassion for others as well as healthy concern for themselves.

Humility

As a second factor, the child understanding that he or she is no better or worse than anyone else, or humility, helps to temper the feeling of specialness as stated in the last paragraph. Every child must know that birth into any particular family, within any particular country, within any particular period in history, is merely a matter of luck. No matter what any particular person might believe about the importance of intelligence, athletic prowess, street smarts, ability in mathematics, artistry, social ability, color of skin, quickness of wit, or the multitude of other possible human attributes, it is absolutely essential that every child be brought up believing that they are equal, no better or worse, to everyone else. They must know they have a right to be treated well, and they should expect to be treated well. They also should never expect to be treated better than others or to be given special treatment over others. They must learn to treat everyone else just as they want to be treated (we all know that one, right?). In fact, it really helps if the child is able to see him or herself, in addition to knowing they have certain rights within this context, as just an infinitesimally small part of a huge universe. That is, although they must see themselves as very special, and must treat themselves like they deserve just as much as anyone else, they must also see themselves, just like all of us, as extremely unimportant within the larger scheme of humanity itself.

Hard Work

Every child must also know, as a third factor, that hard work is the key to all success as a human being. If a child is asked to observe all the people for whom they have great respect, it is very unlikely that any of these respected individuals will have become famous for winning the lottery. You may not appreciate the same people that your children appreciate, but if you ask them, you will soon see that the people they do respect are people who have worked extremely hard to get where they are. Rock musicians, athletes, movie stars, rich guys, or even that kid at school who seems to have it altogether, are generally all people who work really hard. You might worry that they’d use some “screw up” at school that they think is really funny as an example of someone they respect, but they won’t be able to name anything the person does that they really think is worthy of respect unless the kid is really working hard at something (even if they’re working really hard at being funny). When you think about it, relationships themselves require hard work. So, if you’re concerned your child won’t respect you because you don’t have a job outside the house, my guess is that your lack of an outside job makes you a person who works especially hard at relationships. You are likely spending your life making sure that the others in your life are properly supported.

Once your child sees that hard working people are the one's he or she respects, it becomes necessary for them to see that hard work very rarely fails to lead to success. Even in the most impoverished families, if a child knows hard work is the key to success, the fact that he is always working so hard will make him a sought after employee everywhere he works. He will not be able to prevent himself from succeeding, even if he is prevented from succeeding at the same levels possible for those raised by more affluent parents who can afford to give him or her a fine education. Believing in hard work, in fact, is an antidote to the learned helplessness that so often accompanies poverty. It was largely the undeniable belief in hard work that brought so many people out of the Great Depression, and success seemingly materialized then almost as though from nothing but the strength of will in hardworking people.

On the other hand, a child from an affluent family may be pushed through the finest schools and be given every advantage, but if she does not desire to work hard due to a belief that it should not be necessary, she will never achieve anything from her own efforts, and will never experience the esteem that such hard work earns. He or she may be handed a position of authority with adequate pay, but that position, if hard work was never necessary in securing it, will have no meaning. That child, now adult, will get no satisfaction from work. It is only through hard work that a healthy adult achieves a sense of satisfaction. It is only through hard work that anyone develops anything meaningful.



Responsibility

Hard work is really not possible without the fourth factor being simultaneously present (which may be true of all these factors). Being responsible is an absolute necessity for integrity to develop. Responsibility largely grows from the very connectedness that parents have with their children in that, if we care about others, we do our best not to hurt or disappoint them. In a healthy family the children do not want to disappoint or harm the adults and the adults definitely don't want to harm the children, even if they must disappoint them at times.

When things get complicated within daily interactions, however, with children struggling for increasing autonomy as they should, children must know that parents can give them only as much freedom or autonomy as they earn by being responsible (please see article “Freedom and Responsibility”). Of course we seemingly control our children at times due to our desire to protect them. We have no real desire to stop them from doing things except that they might get or be hurt. When we know that they will handle things in a way that will make them safe, we generally don’t have a problem with giving them freedom.

Likewise, in relationships we allow people to get closer to us when we know they won’t hurt us. On the job we give our workers more authority as it becomes clear that they will handle tasks adequately. When our children take responsibility for their actions in how they treat us and others, they are allowed more leeway in their relationships with us and others. With few exceptions, freedom and responsibility always balance each other in life.

Kids may think us parents get to make all the rules and get to do, within reason, anything we want to do, but what they don’t see is how our freedom is limited because our responsibilities in the family make it impossible for us to do many of the things we want to do every single day. We have to work and make money to pay the bills. We have to be punctual in transporting ourselves and them. We need to make sure everything is organized so that the family will keep moving in a healthy direction. We need to get meals to the table. All our many responsibilities make doing what we want to do a relatively low priority for us, and thus we actually often don't have much freedom at all.

Children too will get as much freedom as they deserve based on how much responsibility they take. If they take so little social responsibility that they become criminals, they will end up in jail with no freedom at all. If they don’t break laws, but take no responsibility within their relationships to others, they will find they have no real freedom within relationships (at least not relationships that last in any kind of healthy or meaningful way). When they take adequate responsibility for themselves, for their work, and for their relationships with others, kids should be given the freedom they deserve. When they grow up, our children's ability to be responsible will give them the freedom and desire to take on the many responsibilities which will make them fully functional and successful adults.

Gratitude

Gratitude or thankfulness is also a huge factor. It goes without saying that in more affluent families there is much for which to be thankful. Especially if one's parents are recognizing their child's specialness, and attempting to inculcate the mores of equality, hard work, and responsibility, the child certainly should be thankful. On the other hand, when a child has been given everything and nothing has been expected in return, or when a child’s true self has been largely ignored while the parents’ needs for a grand image is pursued, the child will fail to develop an understanding of gratitude.

With respect to less affluent, or impoverished families, it might be far more difficult to be grateful. Nevertheless, without gratitude integrity cannot develop. Gratitude must be found simply for one's relationships, having enough to eat, or having a roof over one's head, or it is impossible to have enough esteem to work hard, or to see the need for responsibility. Why work hard or take responsibility if you’ve always been cheated and you have never been blessed in any way. Further, accepting one's smallness in the universe, or humility, is an insult to one's self if you feel like you've been cheated or like you have nothing, unless you can be grateful for something that you do know you have. It’s strange but true that it’s impossible to feel a sense of humility unless you also feel like you’re lucky in some way. Simply put, thankfulness must be found in anyone who aims to be mentally healthy. Without gratitude a person merely thinks selfishly and feels entitled, or on the other hand, responds to the world with anger and entitlement, regardless of the circumstances within which they’ve been reared.

Growth

Finally, growth must be understood as a constant in the healthy life. Growth is at the center of everything in the universe (Please see article “Growth”). The universe is growing and expanding, life is a process of growth, we are typically always pursuing some kind of growth. Healthy growth involves expanding our abilities, our intellect, or our integrity itself. Every child must embrace the fact that he is trying to grow so that such growth can be healthy.

Many people try to grow by stockpiling material possessions or a more fabulous image. The pursuit of some types of growth is a compensation for areas where people feel inadequate. Sometimes the pursuit of material possessions is an attempt to grow where one feels nothing but emptiness inside and there is really no feeling of growth at all. In such circumstances, it's as if growth must come from soil, and must receive the nutrients from that soil as well as energy from the sun, but there is no soil and there's insufficient nutrition. When materialistic pursuits reign over integrity, even when the sun does shine, darkness always looms, as every new possession brings only ephemeral pleasure. Similarly, people who attempt to grow in their power over others are merely compensating for deep-seated feelings of weakness and vulnerability.

Readily apparent is the upheaval or disintegration (or entropy) that occurs when people are not getting any sense of growth. For example, while people might turn to materialism or a pursuit of power to get a sense of growth, when those pursuits are recognized as futile, desperation in the form of anxiety, depression, or anger often take command.

It is absolutely essential that the healthy person pursue growth. The only sufficient growth involves goals that are meaningful and consistent with the individual's unique personality characteristics. Growth within a person implies the pursuit of goals that expand a person's abilities and stretch a person where they could do their best. We all like to grow in different ways, but growth is certainly at the center of things, right along side specialness.

The Six Factors and Us

With these six factors, balanced by parenting that aims to protect our children while simultaneously encouraging autonomy in them, integrity is developed and becomes the antidote to the troubles found within our materialistic world. Connection and relatedness with our children helps to develop all six factors. Through positive interaction with us, our children come to understand their special place within our hearts, while they also understand that they are no better than anyone else in this world. They learn to work hard and earn the respect of others as they learn to earn our respect. They take responsibility for their work, as well as their safety, while they pay attention to the affect they have on our emotions and the feelings of others, and they also make sure they themselves are treated as well as they deserve. They learn to appreciate our efforts and what they are given. They also learn to appreciate simple pleasures. In addition to gratitude for food, shelter and safety, they learn to appreciate the world itself in all its wonders. Through their relationships with us, our children learn to appreciate beauty and understand horror. Through their relationship with us, they learn about the love they will know for themselves and the love they will share and spread.
 
Jun 2009
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How did you arrive at those exact six factors? I see no reason one couldn't include "Honesty" here, for instance, so I wonder why those six are there, while other potential factors are left out.
 
Dec 2010
33
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That's an interesting question. These six factors were not arrived at in a scientific manner. Rather, they are merely the things that seem to come up in my office repeatedley. They are areas of struggle for people in general, and especially kids, and when a person is well-rounded, they typically are pretty good in all these areas. I do think other factors could get involved, but these six seemed to feel complete, and really, to me, they still do. The problem with honesty, for instance, is that it's not always right to be honest (at least not in my opinion - I think you know what I mean). The honesty that is desireable, from my point of view, is a subset of responsibility. Anyway, to me this article is helpful because we're all weaker in certain aspects and need to work on them. Also, when raising our children, we can notice which areas we might not be doing so well with them. For example, when I think about these six factors, I realize I need to have my kids do more work for themselves. Perhaps my wife and I do too much for them. I'm hoping they think they're special, they definitely have humility and gratitude, they're pretty responsible (especially where it matters most, people's feelings, if not as much for their grades etc), and they're definitely both growth oriented (and I'm hoping that will mean they will work hard). I'd love it if someone did a factor analysis on these. I'd bet they'd be pretty orthogonal. If there are other factors I'd feel were as important, I'd add them to the article, but I haven't really found big ones yet that I just thought had to be added.