Future Reflections                                                                    Spring/Summer 2003

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Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

by Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D

Reprinted with permission of the author from Pediatrics for Parents, volume 19, number 7.

Editor’s Note: On rare occasions we print or reprint an article in Future Reflections that is not directly related to blindness. This article is one of them. Since Rhett Waldman uses the phrase, “self-fulfilling prophecy,” in his article—“The Rebirth of Our Son”—elsewhere in this issue, it seemed appropriate to examine the origins and meaning of this concept. Dr. Michael K. Meyerhoff; Ed.D., is executive director of The Epicenter Inc., “The Education for Parenthood Information Center,” a family advisory and advocacy agency located in Lindenhurst, Illinois. His e-mail address is <epicntrtnc@aol.com>. Here is what he has to say about “self-fulfilling prophecy:”

One of the more disturbing studies in the field of educational psychology concerns the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy. As part of a study, prior to the start of a new school year, teachers were given a list of the students who would be entering their classrooms. Next to each student’s name was an indication that the student was a “poor,” “average,” or “excellent” pupil. At the end of the year, the grades the students earned were compared to the ratings their teachers had been given earlier. For the most part, the performance of the students matched the level of academic capability indicated on the list.

The “kicker” in this study was that the “poor,” “average,” and “excellent” notations were made entirely at random. There was no connection between an individual’s rating and his or her past performance, test scores, readiness assessments, or anything else. In other words, it was clear that during the school year, the students lived up to the high or low expectations of the teachers rather than to their actual potential.

The implications of this study are tremendous and tragic. For generations, large groups of children have been doomed to less than stellar scholastic records due to popular prejudices and preconceived notions concerning their race, ethnicity, or gender. And countless individual kids have never been allowed to develop their capacities fully because of conscious or unconscious beliefs and attitudes their teachers acquired as the result of experiences with older siblings, comments written in their official records, or offhand remarks made by colleagues.

Obviously, it is therefore imperative for parents to ensure that their child enters any educational experience with a positive presentation—or at least with a clean slate. They should ask to see any and all files to which their child’s teachers will have access and insist that any negative indications be expunged if possible or at least rephrased in a more neutral fashion as appropriate. They also should meet with their child’s teachers and strive to clear up any misunderstandings or misconceptions that might jeopardize their child’s chances of getting a fair shake.

What is not so obvious is that parents must explore their own susceptibility to this phenomenon and rigorously avoid their own inclinations to unwittingly create problems for their child. Regrettably, human nature leads us to make “personal” comments about our children’s “performances.” All too often, this results in a temporary problem being transformed into a permanent trait.

For example, a baby starts talking a couple of months before the average age, but still isn’t walking when most of her peers are doing so. Consequently, her mother and father remark to friends and relatives that “she is very social, but not particularly physical.” The fact of the matter is that the child is exhibiting perfectly normal variations in developmental patterns and there is no reason whatsoever to make this sort of characterization. However, as time goes by, the child gradually understands and then internalizes these comments. Eventually, she becomes the non-athletic chatterbox that everyone always said she was.

A little boy is reluctant to accept the strained beets he is offered for dinner. Instead of simply saying, “He doesn’t seem to like this stuff” or “Perhaps we should give his taste buds a little more time to acquire a taste for beets,” his parents say, “He’s such a picky eater.” It is not surprising that mealtimes soon become a major struggle no matter what is on the menu.

A young girl hides behind her mother and refuses to respond when a stranger says hello. Rather than saying, “Give her some time to get used to you” or “She doesn’t seem to be in the mood for conversation today,” her parents say, “You’ll have to excuse her—she’s extremely shy.” It is not surprising that the child subsequently begins to exhibit reluctance to engage in all social interactions.

A young boy ignores his mother’s request to leave a playground. Instead of saying, “You need to work on your listening skills” or “I don’t like it when you’re disobedient,” she says, “You’re so stubborn—just like your father.” It is not surprising that the boy gradually grows into a real mule.

Of course, it would be impossible—and somewhat unnatural—to refrain from such comments entirely.

Nevertheless, it is imperative that parents make every effort to treat an episode of undesirable behavior as an aberration and to focus their remarks on the behavior itself. To the extent that they repeatedly attribute the behavior to their child’s essential nature, they must prepare to deal with a child who will ultimately become precisely what they have predicted.

Note: Pediatrics for Parents is, I believe, one of the best, most informative little newsletters about common pediatric medical topics. The articles are timely, short, easy to read, and truly useful to parents. I’ve been getting and reading it for at least fifteen years. For subscription information go to www.pedsforparents.com or write to: Pediatrics for Parents, c/o Rich Sagall, M.D., 747 S. 3rd Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19147-3324.

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