Sunday, January 14, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 14, 2001

Positive influences on the young matter

By Katherine Nichols
Advertiser Staff Writer

Can any single negative influence lead a child down the wrong path?

Psychologist James Garbarino says a sense of spirituality is important to young people.
Psychologist and author James Garbarino doesn’t think so. If he’s right, this is good news for parents, because it means there are more solutions to problems with children than many people have realized.

"Outcomes in child development almost never depend on one cause, so parents need to look at the whole picture," Garbarino said in a recent telephone interview during a vacation on Maui.

He says a series of risk factors may accumulate in a child’s life, but can be offset with positive influences, or "opportunity factors." The trick is finding those opportunities in what may look like a dismal situation.

The titles of Garbarino’s books may sound alarming, but anyone looking for calming wisdom and concrete advice about raising children amid a throng of modern-day risk factors can turn to him for guidance.

In "Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment" (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995), for instance, he explains that "the social context in which (children) grow up has become poisonous to their development," and compares it with the pollutants threatening the environment.

He does not, however, dwell on these factors beyond pointing out possible causes.

Creating a healthy environment for kids

Psychologist James Garbarino names five elements found in a healthy social environment:

Stability. Situations where kids feel known and know everyone else foster stability and continuity, and make the world seem reliable, predictable and encouraging.

Security. Kids want to be safe. When they feel that adults’ authority and power have broken down (in an actual war zone or a figurative one at home), they gravitate toward what Garbarino called “juvenile vigilantism; hey, you gotta protect yourself.”

Community affirmation, as opposed to rejection. At the community level, smaller high schools, where teachers and students know each other and can hold each other accountable, and everyone is needed in some way, are more effective in conveying affirmation. (By comparison, in big high schools, kids try out. And some don’t make it.)

Within the family, affirmation involves conveying to the child some measure of acceptance — even when you need to change him.

Values of economic equality. When children of all classes live in one neighborhood, kids from all backgrounds become known as individuals instead of stereotypes. Integration is key.

A good home for the spirit. In our disposable culture, parents often miss opportunity after opportunity to teach children about the ethic of caring. They need to nurture their souls and spirits.

— Katherine Nichols

Instead, he devotes his energy to solutions, the most important of which he says is fostering spirituality.

Garbarino currently is co-director of the Family Life Development Center and professor of human development at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He earned his doctorate in human development and family studies from Cornell in 1973, and served as president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development in Chicago from 1984 to 1994.

Guiding 'Dateline'

He acts as a consultant for magazine, newspaper and television reports on children, which sometimes involves guiding the lines of questioning for Stone Phillips behind the scenes on NBC’s "Dateline." In addition, he frequently speaks in public and often serves as an expert witness in court cases involving violent youths.

His personal trials only add to his credibility and humanity: Divorced and remarried, he is the father and stepfather of teenage children, and in his own description, was a "difficult infant and toddler — cranky, troublesome, willful and aggressive."

Iolani, St. Louis, and Maryknoll schools invited Garbarino to speak with their parents, and selected teachers, counselors, principals and character-education coordinators from public and private schools this week about what his research and writings have helped him understand about raising children.

"He talks about how parents and teachers can provide anchors for children," said Fred Okumura, dean of students at Iolani’s lower school and the person largely responsible for generating interest in Garbarino’s work in Hawaii. "He talks about the need for spirituality, and because we are a Christian school, that’s what really attracted me."

Okumura also admires Garbarino’s specific suggestions to help at-risk children. "He’s been saying these things for quite a while," Okumura continued, "but times seem more violent now, so people are beginning to pay more attention."

An author and co-author of 17 books, Garbarino’s most recent title is "Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them" (Free Press, 1999). Among his numerous awards, he has been recognized by the National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect for his efforts on behalf of troubled children.

Risk factors

What can put a child at risk for deviant behavior? According to Garbarino, risk factors include poverty, mental illness, child abuse, absence of a parent, low education of a parent, substance abuse by a parent and large family size, among others. The more the risk factors increase, the more important the spiritual component becomes.

Suggestions for parents

James Garbarino’s suggestions for incorporating spirituality into your life (and therefore your child’s life) beyond traditional religion:

Practice mindfulness exercises, or those that help the mind concentrate. Examples include yoga, some forms of martial arts, certain reading programs, meditation and exercise.

Select music that cultivates a reflective and calm atmosphere.

Care for living things, such as plants, gardens, animals or fish. This helps teach responsibility for the physical environment.

Foster long-term relationships with people who can serve as spiritual mentors.

— Katherine Nichols

However, contrary to popular belief, Garbarino said, there is seldom a simple explanation for behavior. Culture, community, ethnic history and gender all influence cause and effect. "If you ask: Does X cause Y? the best scientific answer is typically: It depends."

Somewhat reassuring is that a variety of what he calls opportunity factors balance the negative risk factors present in society.

"These factors for young people are both external and internal, and include such things as reading for pleasure, playing an instrument, attending a religious institution, getting support from at least three non-parent adults, communicating positively with parents and believing in some degree of control over one’s life," he said.

"As the number of assets accumulates, the potential for being at-risk drops."

Opportunity factors

The most potent opportunity factor, he says, is spirituality. But while religion and spirituality are related, Garbarino said, they are not synonymous. Recent research shows that involvement in "non-punitive religion can buffer kids against social toxins."

No matter what the spiritual source, for such efforts to succeed, Garbarino said, "practitioners must put spirituality at the core of their own lives, embedding it in their personal system of beliefs rather than just pulling it out" in times of crisis as a therapeutic technique.

In his research of troubled youths prone to extreme violence, he noticed a common a theme: spiritual emptiness.

"That sense of being on your own in the universe is very dangerous in this context in which we live," he said. "The spiritually empty child has a kind of hole in his heart, lacks a sense of limits and lacks an emotional foundation to fall back on in times of sadness," and consequently is susceptible to what Garbarino described as an "emotional free fall."

Spirituality leads to emotional fulfillment, yet often eludes people in a materialistic culture. Parents must set the example. "When we tell kids a measure of success is material wealth, we delude them," he said.

Everything that surrounds youngsters has some measure of influence. And sometimes that’s easy to ignore. Garbarino’s reminder to all parents: "Children are like sponges; they soak up what is around them, then release it when squeezed."

Most of what childhood should be all about, he said, is having an opportunity to play and love and be loved. But when the ideal childhood is not possible, there is still hope.

"Human beings are not wimps," he said. "We can deal with adversity. That’s why we survive as a species."

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