Gerry ChidiacIn the early 20th century, sociologist Charles Horton Cooley introduced the concept of “the looking glass self,” meaning that we humans tend to see ourselves in the way we believe others see us.

If we think other people like us, we’ll think we’re likable. If we think they consider us flawed, we’ll tend to see ourselves in the same light.

Several difficulties can arise when we live like this.

First, we don’t control what others think. We may be able to influence it to a degree by adopting certain social customs, like being polite, dressing appropriately, etc. But humans still have a tendency to make judgments, consciously or unconsciously.

Second, we don’t know what others are thinking. Therefore, we’re basing our concept of ourselves on what’s often an errant and negative assumption.

This is important for teachers and others who work with young people to keep in mind. Teens especially are very hard on themselves and we need to not only counter the negative messages they receive, but to help them build more truthful images of themselves.

The media and societal values, for example, give girls conflicting images about the ideal body type. They may be shamed for being considered too curvy or too thin. We often don’t consider the fact that the concept of physical beauty is very relative.

Boys are put under similar pressure. Action figures and heroes often have disproportionately large muscles. And young men are still bombarded with the message that “boys don’t cry.”

As well, schools tend to idealize certain types of intelligence. Children who are good at reading and math are considered smart; this isn’t the case for those who excel in the arts and sports, or for those who have exceptional interpersonal or mechanical skills.

So how do we overcome these challenges?

One key point is to be mindful of them, to look at them honestly and discuss them openly. How ‘good looking’ we are is merely a societal standard that has nothing to do with true beauty. How ‘smart’ we are has little to do with types of intelligence actually needed to have a functional economy.

If we want to have young people who aren’t stifled by fear of the judgments of others, we need to help to develop their character. As author Dorothy Law Nolte wrote, “Children learn what they live.”

If we cherish and honour them, they’ll learn to cherish and honour themselves. If we model respect for others, they’ll learn to respect others as well. If we truly value integrity and service, if we accept fault and constantly work to be the best we can be, our children will do the same.

We all have a tendency to be impacted by “the looking glass self.” When we’re mindful of this, we’re able to ask ourselves if we really know the opinions of others, if their opinions are important and if they align with our ideas of what’s right.

From there, we can make the choices that bring us the greatest peace.

As we live this way, we pass on positive messages to our children and help them to do the same.

Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.

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