Laura Flores Shaw, editor of Whitepaper Press, recently posted an article by Michael Lewis: The Development of Guilt as Repair in Childhood, introducing me to a field of study that is particularly compelling because I have two teens who struggle in this area, and I honestly can’t imagine an adolescent in this crazy world who doesn’t. (Full disclosure: Lewis is discussing younger children, and I am shamelessly extrapolating to adolescents.)

My first response is admiration for the precise and clinical nature of Lewis’s reporting on the intellectual terrain he travels  – What is Guilt vs. What is Shame? How do Guilt and Shame arise? How are they experienced by the child? How are they observable in a child? How do self-conscious emotions develop? What processes and forces influence the formation of an evaluation of self? What are the functions of self-conscious emotions in the development of a sense of self, and of independent Standards, Rules, and Goals (SRGs)?

As I hungrily devour new concepts and language, observation guideposts, reflection and discussion tools – it stabs me like the fishbone you feel when it’s too late not to swallow – that this research completely fails to take into account the power and complexity of most of the factors in the self evaluation equation … for young persons on the ground in the here and now. Take SRGs, for example: Young people, in American society, are embedded in multiple, overlapping, yet often completely incompatible and incoherent layers of cultural experience characterized by a panoply of incompatible and incoherent SRGs.

Lewis says:
“Evaluations, the second step of attributions, occur when children compare their actions, thoughts, and feelings with their SRGs. This evaluation, which is a function of individual socialization, can lead to a verdict of either success or failure. If passing a test with a C fits one person’s standards, they have succeeded, whereas if another receives a B, which is lower than their standards, that person will have failed. Thus, success or failure is dependent on individually held SRGs.”

Hear this with me: “If passing a test with a C fits one person’s standards, they have succeeded…”

My own 11th grade self thought that, too – my straight A, white, middle class, suburban student-who-just-scored-her-first-sloppy-C self – thought that 40 years ago. But this a brain-exploding oversimplification of what self evaluation looks like for a 15 year old black man (in 2018) who (just as an isolated example) gets C’s at school (and has done, for a lifetime) … is told by two white moms (also for an entire lifetime) that those Cs are not measures of his true self – and then, depending on the mood and the age, depending on the year … that the letters and numbers don’t mean anything, or that they only mean a little, or that they mean more or less depending on changes in law, or that they mean a lot or a little depending on who’s teaching, or that he is anything but average, etc.

This child now beholds a transcript forwarded from his current school to a prospective new school, with his “paper self ” earnestly and concisely summarized as a 2.63.

2.63 what? Stars? Apples?

Then there’s the Asian-adopted adolescent who never colors outside the lines, gets straight A’s (of course, that’s expected of Asian students) (and of course her moms encourage her to strive for a B or a C now and then), and struggles with the nagging worry that she’s being acknowledged for learning how to bullshit rather than learning how to think.

(I’m altering the details to protect privacy here, and simplifying to make my point.)

Successful? or no? Internal socialization? Individually held SRGs? What could a kid’s internal success meter possibly make of all this?

James Baldwin is said to have observed that every black person has a little tiny white man sitting his shoulder, watching and judging. That’s true for white folks too, of course – it’s just not quite as repugnant. I’d add that the TLWM has “SRG” printed on his shirt. He’s the area rep for the culture a person wishes to be valued in.

The question is, how are kids expected to construct or adopt their own SRGs when the adults around them are so all over the place? How do they know which SRGs will help them actualize and which will help them get ahead/find gainful employment or support themselves and their families … and what do they do when the SRGs of self actualization are in direct conflict with the SRGs of getting ahead in life?

Obviously, I am responding to the oversimplification by going into too much anecdotal detail (probably TMI  _0_ ) about too narrow an aspect of Lewis’s work and Flores Shaw’s discussion.

My point, though, is that I often struggle to understand how to use the science, when experience in the real world lacks the clinical “control of variability” in multiple factors that are absolutely crucial to the assertions being made.

At the end of the day, I suppose the value, for me, of a piece such as this is that it gives me new language, new categories, new tools for observation, discussion, and reflection.

Thanks for that, @MichaelLewis, and @LauraFloresShaw.