This is the time of the year when folks recall accomplishment and resolve improvement. For many, the 2002 economic downturn reduced accomplishment, and international tensions and a growing loss of autonomy enhanced fear. Optimism for 2003 is thus in short supply in many homes and schools.

I think back to my tenth year— midway through the 20-year human maturation. It was the depth of the great economic depression of the 1930’s and a world war loomed. Our family of twelve had an annual income well under $1000 and my father’s job was continually problematic. I sensed that times were bad, but a child my age had no context for either good times or war.

Our parents continually demonstrated optimism and love. Our family gardened/canned, darned socks, and made do with what we had; and we children sought jobs. I canvassed the neighborhood for 10-cents-an-hour yard work, and was thrilled to earn the money. I don’t know how my parents remained positive during what must have been scary times, but they did — and I always knew that my contributions were appreciated.

And now it’s 65 years later and we’re once again in an economic decline and international hostilities loom. What can parents and teachers resolve to do this coming year to help young people understand what’s occurring, and to enhance their maturation during a problematic time? This month’s column will focus on the issue of economic fluctuations, and next month’s column on the fear of war.

Economic Fluctuations
Personal/group economic fluctuations are a constant in human life that young folks should experience and understand. It’s thus not advisable to shield children from the realities of bad times or to pretend during good times that the economy will always be robust. Further, some families experience economic deprivation during a general economic boom, and the reverse is also true.

The constant positive/negative fluctuations that occur in games provide young folks with an introduction to the concept of fluctuations and to the value of teamwork in the successful response to such fluctuations.

Encouraging children to be a constantly contributing resource within the family and school further prepares them for the adult responsibilities and economic fluctuations they’ll confront. Many view childhood as a period of give and take — adults give and children take. It’s much better to think of family and school as collaborating social systems in which all share in the work and the benefits—at whatever level is appropriate for each contributing member.

When our large family gathered for our 50th wedding anniversary a year ago, the conversations focused mostly on the terrible things we had experienced (many with serious financial overtones). We laughed about it, and the laughter came from the realization that we had suffered and pulled together through all these terrible experiences, and emerged as a loving intact family. Class reunion conversations similarly tend to focus on school disasters. The recollection of the problem that perhaps seemed life shattering 25 years ago brings peals of laughter today from those who experienced it, learned from it, and then went on with their lives.

Viewed over the long haul, negative experiences can thus become positive learning opportunities if adult mentors use the experience to help the young master the management skills they’ll need to effectively guide their own adult families and institutions through the fluctuations they’ll experience. For example, during the current economic slump, don’t unilaterally institute austerity measures, but rather challenge your young folks to suggest and implement creative ways to reduce home and school expenses, and to increase revenue.

Schools can be an especially important place for young folks to develop such skills. Since the inhabitants aren’t related (as they are at home), the social dynamics are much more complex. We don’t normally spend our adult life with our birth family, so young folks need the extensive interaction with non-kin that school provides. Think of seemingly mundane decisions about the management of classroom time, space, and movement as a marvelous curricular laboratory for mastering social/democratic skills—something that occurs if students and teacher become collaborators in solving the various problems that arise.

The only way to learn how to walk is to walk, and the only way to learn how to function successfully within social and economic fluctuations is to participate in the solution process across the fluctuations—and the family and classroom provide marvelous apprenticeship opportunities in this for young folks. Adults who do all the worrying, make all the decisions, and do all the work are worn out at the end of the day and the young folks who simply observed the process are bored. Young folks who don’t feel that they’re real participants in the process often feel exploited when adults involve them only in directed physical tasks, and they show their resentment through malingering at their assigned tasks.

Further, involving young folks the management of a family and classroom helps them to discover that a truly qualitative life isn’t dependent on the expensive possessions and unlimited funds of the good times, but that it rather comes from the awareness of having contributed to the solution of the challenges we continually face. Werner and Smith (1992) have conducted a 40 year study of a large group of seriously at-risk poor children who matured into resilient successful adults. They discovered that family and non-family mentors gave these children unconditional love; encouraged their curiosity, interests, and dreams; and assigned them responsibilities that helped them to discover their strengths and interests. The at-risk children in the study who didn’t receive this valuable adult support tended to have a much less successful adult life.

Diamond and Hopson (1998) suggest useful parental activities for such involvement, and I’ve suggested useful activities for educators (Sylwester, 2003), but adults don’t have to follow a published manual to successfully collaborate with young folks when solving economic and other challenges. Simply resolve to begin with current problems that invite easily genuine collaboration with the young folks in your care, and go on from there to the more complex challenges. 2003 will be a better year if you resolve to engage in true intergenerational collaboration!