Stephanie A Williamson and Dr. Larry J Nelson, Marriage, Family and Human Development
Young children’s perceptions of themselves and their competencies broaden as they progress through middle childhood in a normal sequence of development. Though they are able to mentally connect their competencies, children will usually see themselves as all “good” or all “bad”.1 Therefore, constructive guidance is especially important at this stage of life in order to foster positive self-perceptions. Such perceptions are associated with favorable future outcomes, such as academic achievement and peer acceptance.2
Along with several other developing domains of self-concept, a child’s sense of morality is founded during middle childhood. They come to understand right from wrong and gradually develop a conscience. Of course, children will discover a more complete spectrum of morality in adolescence and adulthood, but the middle childhood years are formative in this aspect of development.
Predictably, as children acquire a greater definition of morality and a stronger concept of self, effects of their external influences become increasingly evident. Arguably one of the most influential forces in shaping typical childhood development stems from the basic unit of society: parents. Parents teach children morals and values, help them overcome any undesirable characteristics, and provide opportunities for enhancement of their positive capabilities.3 Even without listing their further capacities, the role parents play in their children’s lives is clearly important.
Realizing what I considered to be an essential relationship between parenting and appropriate child development, I wondered what outcomes face those children raised without parents. I felt that orphans, whether in fact or practice, would be at risk of developing negative self-perceptions and distorted views on morality. Through a BYU service-learning program, I was able to spend a semester in Iaºi, Romania. Probably hundreds of children work or live on the streets of Iaºi. Many of them do have families, but these kids are forced to the streets because of poverty.
Before going to Romania, I studied about street kids and felt informed about the project I was proposing. I planned to contact street kids easily through their social connections and hoped to interview at least fifty kids. They would be excited to talk to me and happy to cooperate. Each interview would consist of about thirty self-perception questions, nine hypothetical situations to determine moral views, and a few other questions to gain insight on the street kids’ daily lives. I assumed that these kids would be able to answer the questions posed to them; the questions were originally written for typical school-age children in the United States. Also, because I planned to extend my research throughout the semester, I thought that it would not be a big time commitment for any short period.
After experiencing the reality of the country and the children’s situations, though, I looked at this research differently. First, getting approval for my proposal was complicated because of the children’s unique circumstances in relation to obtaining informed consent. I received IRB approval only a few weeks before my internship ended and I returned to the US. Also, after discussing my project with our program facilitator in Romania, I realized that venturing out on my own with a translator in hopes of interviewing street kids was very impractical. Instead, I was put in touch with Daniel Magureanu from “Save the Children”, a non-profit foundation in the city. He was known and trusted by street children all over Iaºi and proved to be an invaluable asset to my research. I was able to interview fifteen children while in Romania, mostly at the “Save the Children” building. As I had hoped, nearly all of the children were excited to talk to me. However, several would not be dependable or available for interviewing. I also quickly found that my interview questions were not as easy and ideal as I had thought. Because most of the street kids had limited schooling, they were confused by some of the questions asked. Also, their attention spans were much shorter than my list of questions. Time constraints for researching, due to approval of the proposal and the semester’s end, made it difficult to arrange schedules for more interviews. Even with a small data set, though, there is potential for some interesting conclusions. I hope that future studies with Romanian street children will investigate their development in these areas further.
Although I have not done a complete comparison of my data with accepted normative studies, I plan to in the coming months. I did notice, however, a tendency among most of the children I interviewed to be inconsistent in answering. Especially when asked about satisfaction with their lives in general, the street kids would often give conflicting responses at different times in our discussion. Also, many kids’ interpretations of hostile vs. benign intentions in social situations were surprising. I hypothesized that because of the harsh environment these children have been exposed to, they would have a hostile bias toward others. However, they often identified provocational actions without association to hostile or malicious intent. Hopefully, more thorough investigation of these responses will increase our understanding of the street children.
In conclusion, my research has tapped into an interesting field but definitely has not explored it fully. I hope that my results will provide a starting point for anyone pursuing further, related studies or initiating any type of intervention for the street children.4
1Harter, S. (1999). The Construction of the Self: A Developmental Perspective. New York: The Guilford Press.
2 Nelson, L. (2001). Behavioral and Relational Correlates of Negative Self-Perceived Competence in Young Children. Manuscript submitted for publication.
3 Hart, C. (1999). “Combating the Myth that Parents Don’t Matter.” World Congress of Families II, Geneva, Switzerland.
4 I would like to particularly acknowledge and thank Dr. Larry Nelson for his extensive support and guidance throughout this project; Dr. Dave Nelson for introducing the moral development aspect; Daniel Magureanu for translation services and connections with the street kids; and Lacra Brown for her willingness and help in Romania.