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Early European anthropologists described Native American children as radiantly happy, courageous, and highly respectful, noting that their elders never subjected them to harsh punishment.  The professional literature, however, shows little understanding of how tribal cultures could rear children with prosocial values and positive self-esteem.  Long before the term “self-esteem” was coined, European youth work pioneers used a similar concept, which they called “discouragement.”  The obvious solution to discouragement is to help children develop courage.  As we discovered, building courageous children was a central focus of Native American tribal cultures.  Our modern “civilization,” in contrast, produces millions of children of discouragement.  How might we go about rearing courageous and respectful children?

In his definitive work, The Antecedents of Self-Esteem, Stanley Coopersmith (1967) concluded that childhood self-esteem is based on significance, competence, power, and virtue.  Traditional Native child-care philosophy addresses each of these dimensions:

1.  Significance is nurtured in an environment in which every child is treated as a “relative” and is surrounded by love and affection.  This fosters a sense of belonging.

2.  Competence is enhanced by nurturing each child’s success and by celebrating the success of others.  This provides all children abundant opportunities for mastery.

3.  Power is fostered by practicing guidance without coercion.  Even the youngest children learn to make wise decisions and thus demonstrate responsible independence.

4.  The highest virtue is o be unselfish and courageously give of oneself to others.  Children reared in altruistic environments learn to live in a spirit of generosity.

At first glance, the foregoing principles [belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity] hardly seem debatable.  They fit with humanistic values, psychology, and our own experience.  After all, who would advocate the opposite of these concepts -- alienation, failure, helplessness, and egotistic selfishness?  Further, convincing youth themselves that these are important values is not difficult.  Young people what to belong, succeed, have power over their lives, and be needed in the world.  Once these values are given primacy in our programs, their revolutionary quality becomes apparent.

Whereas most of our traditional systems have been anchored in adult dominance, the Circle of Courage is a youth empowerment model.  Table 1 shows how Native empowerment values mirror the foundations of self-esteem identified by Coopersmith (1967) and challenge the values of the dominant culture.


EDMS 512, Hood

Summer 2006

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