What do Children Need the Most?

A number of years back I was fortunate to attend a two-day conference on Arts, Technology, and Intellectual Property at Columbia University’s American Assembly.  At the time I was working for the American Music Center, so the topic was something I had a vested interest in.

As with most conferences, there was the introductory moment early on, where everyone in turn says a little something about who they are and why they are interested in the matter at hand. It’s the let’s go around the room and say a few words about ourselves moment.

I have never forgotten what I heard from this gentleman at the conference, one of the founding producers of Sesame Street. During his introduction, he said:

What do children need the most?

Love and respect.

I have to say, that the love part was easy, I got that. Check one for love. We love our kids and kids need love, correct? Just as The Beatles wrote: “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” 

But, wait one second. Respect? That threw me for a bit of a loop.

I was raised in a fairly strict household. While my parents were not disciplinarians, when I think back on what it was to grow up in the sixties and whether or not the term respect could fairly characterize a philosophy at play in parenting, well, I don’t remember a lot of it, coming from parents or teachers, for that matter. 
After hearing love and respect asserted as twin pillars at the conference, it took me a quite while to wrap my head around it. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. And, I have aspired to embrace these two centralities in parenting and education.
In most of what one read’s about K-12 education, little of it appears to be concerned with respecting children, unless of course, you consider respect to be confined to test scores. Now, while I do think that respect means many things, including setting limits, and calling for reasonable and appropriate accountability, I don’t think that the current world of testing jibes very well what it means to respect a child.
It is one of the things I love about arts education, for it offers many opportunities from early childhood through adult education to promote respect. The respect comes for the very act of creating, a fundamental part of arts education. The creating may be a story, or a painting, or a soundscape. It is the space that we give our children to make something without fear, something that is their own, that we value, thus providing respect. 
For some, it is a double-edged sword, for the idea that each child should be treated with respect for their creation (provided they have invested themselves in what they have created) is difficult to accept. They worry that a term like respect falls into the category of progressive education, and that it will lead to a lack of, well, accountability. 
For others, children are human beings in training, which I guess they are, but some get hung up a bit too much on the “in training” part. Children are human beings after all, and respect should not simply be reserved for adults, training presumably completed (which any shrink can tell you is wishful thinking). Through the arts students can be given an opportunity to discover their own voice. In some cases, the arts provide the very first chance for a child to experience what some call agency, or self-concept, or a gateway to improved executive function. There is respect in this–both respect for one’s self and the beauty of being treated with respect.
It’s not the easiest thing to measure, and it certainly can’t be captured by a bubble test. 
Is there love in the bubble test? I will save that for a future entry.
re·spect  (r-spkt)

tr.v. re·spect·edre·spect·ingre·spects

1. To feel or show deferential regard for; esteem.
2. To avoid violation of or interference with: respect the speed limit.
3. To relate or refer to; concern.

1. A feeling of appreciative, often deferential regard; esteem. 
2. The state of being regarded with honor or esteem.
3. Willingness to show consideration or appreciation.
4. respects Polite expressions of consideration or deference: pay one’s respects.
5. A particular aspect, feature, or detail: In many respects this is an important decision.
6. Usage Problem Relation; reference. 

3 responses to “What do Children Need the Most?”

  1. Hi RIch –
    Thanks for this nugget. I might take the concept a little further – when I’m asked to do program assessment these days, I generally take it as the first sign of dysfunction, whether real or impending, when I don’t see strong signs of an understanding on every level that the greatest asset of the program or school is the kids themselves. Yes – the greatest asset. All the things that we as the arts education community work so hard on to create excellent programming and to prepare ourselves to deliver it effectively certainly count and can’t be undervalued – in fact, that’s where the respect you speak of needs to drive us. Great facilities are a bonus. A supportive and unified administration that really “gets it” is a must. But there is nothing that matches the sheer energy, talent and potential of that room full of kids. They are the engine.

  2. RIchard, I couldn’t agree more, and thanks for plopping it out there so characteristically boldly and directly. (I find a lot of educators even balk at the use of the word “love.” I wrote an essay recently that used the word love, and the most frequent response I had was that people thought I was brave to use the world love in an essay on education. Gimme a break–what have we become?) This issue of respect for young people is one of the distinguishing features of El Sistema in Venezuela (not to mention in Reggio Emilia). Respect for the individual child–even in an orchestral music program, which seems among the least individually-focused activities that could provide palpable respect. But it does. The first time I met Gustavo Dudamel, he told me there were two things at the heart of the success of El Sistema: 1. every child must feel like an asset, and 2. we never forget fun. Those are not the two abiding priorities of music education in the U.S., nor arts education in general. That is why I find El Sistema, which is not hype, they really do what they say in Venezuela, such a radical inspiration for us here.