Finding Value in Children and Youth Who Feel They Have no Value

No Disposable Kids

Finding Value in Children and Youth Who Feel They Have no Value
A review and summary of: Larry K. Brendtro, Arlin Ness, and Martin Mitchell, No Disposable Kids.  Longmont, CO: Sopris West, 2001.


Inspired by a famous statue of Janusz Korczak at the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, the title “No Disposable Kids” came to the authors.  Dr. Korczak founded an orphanage in Warsaw, Poland, for troubled Jewish street youth.  Even in the Warsaw Ghetto, Janusz Korczak refused to abandoned “his” children, choosing to accompany them in the protest of quiet dignity to the gas chambers of Treblinka.  Of course, Yad Vashem itself is a memorial of one of the darkest moments in history, the Holocaust, of which one-quarter of its civilian victims were children.

Nowadays, many troubled children and teens with challenging behavior problems are being written off  The authors, of Starr Commonwealth, in the same spirit refuse to abandoned the children in their care.  School disciplinary and juvenile justice systems too often rely on punishment, using power to control youngsters who are already rebelling because they feel they have no control.  This alienation, in an environment that does not respect these children, leads to trouble, via several pathways:

  • Hostile parenting in a toxic family environment, often as a result of economic and society pressures, family issues, and alcohol abuse
  • Cultures of disrespect in school, society, and peer groups, with all the negative messages children experience
  • Cycles of hostility created by a childhood where there is a lack of love and caring or, even worse, neglect and abuse
  • Ridicule and bullying in school
  • Negative peer cultures in antisocial groups such as gangs comprising troubled teens in need of acceptance
  • Lives interrupted from moving from home to home, school to school
  • Negative or morbid thoughts from clinical or situational depression.

In short, “children who hurt can become children who hate.”  As such, punishment will only exacerbate the hurt and behavioral consequences.  In addition, retribution rhetoric “becomes a false expression of masculinity and courage,” a form of demonizing youth rooted in sexism and enforced by fear, a form of violence.  Jane Addams wrote about the terrible conditions of the juvenile justice system at the turn of the last century.  In this book, the authors clearly spell out what is wrong with society, politics, schools, and the criminal justice system, exposing all the false beliefs and propaganda perpetuated by self-serving adults.  And too much of psychology is fixated on flaws and conditions and that these defined pathologies must be fixed or cured.  In short, “approaches that are repressive in character rather than reconstructive cannot succeed.”

What adults involved with children who are troubled need to do is to shift from a problem-based paradigm to one that focuses on opportunity.  The authors chronicle forward-thinking educators, from Johann Pestalozzi to Janusz Korczak to Ennis William Cosby, with a great deal of research in between.  What they share in common are:

  • Environments of respect where children and adolescents can thrive and grow with dignity
  • Connections by means of support and guidance through strong, positive relationships
  • Continuity, defined by a timeline sequence of antecedents, behavior, and consequences, with the aim of breaking the conflict cycle, where conflict escalates and leads to problem behavior
  • Dignity, emphasizing significance, competence, influence, and virtue
  • Opportunity, which is where the Circle of Courage comes in, consisting of four core principles for nurturing troubled children in a climate of respect of dignity: belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.

The aim is to build on children’s strengths; the fourth and final chapter discusses specific ways within the context of the Circle of Courage, introduced here and in an earlier work, Reclaiming Youth at Risk.  With empathy, understanding, and a positive philosophy of dignity and respect, there will not be any allowance for “disposable” children.


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