Using the Kwanzaa Principle Ujima to Address the Current Crisis and Condition of American Youth

December 4, 2010

Research shows the health and well being of American children is worse than it was 50 years ago: there’s an epidemic of anxiety and depression among the young; aggressive behavior and delinquency rates in young children are rising; and empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior, has been shown to be decreasing among college students.

The key crisis for American youth is the crisis of development. “The conditions in which children and youth develop have been so corrupted”, Gabor Mate, MD, argues, “that the template for normal brain development no longer exists.” Put straightforward: “The developmental conditions for healthy child and youth psychological and brain development are less and less available to children and youth.” This developmental crisis is especially acute for many African American youth.  Moreover, as suggested in a recent study by Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez, “The way we raise our children today in this country is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well being and a moral sense.”

The unhealthy and toxic conditions in which children and youth are being reared and growing up in today have enduring and ruinous consequences as reflected in youth crime, the decline in student academic performance, the disarray and dysfunction of schools, anti-social peer group attachment, bullying, and an increase in youth mental health disorders.  The general response to this consequence is to blame parents, incarcerate and demonize youth, establish zero tolerance policies, call youth, parent and teacher accountability, and increase punitive measures as a disincentive for poor parent, teacher and youth performance. Thus, ill advised practices and beliefs have become commonplace in the American institutions responsible for child and youth care and development.

Child and Youth Development in the Kwanzaa Mode

The central assumption which underpins the Kwanzaa approach to child and youth development is the “village” concept embedded in one of the core guiding principle of Kwanzaa- (Ujima-Swahili), collective work and responsibility. The proverb and popular saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” is practice which conceives of child and youth development as a nested system. Thus, the guiding principle Ujima teaches each family member to recognize that their own well-being is derived from their family’s and community’s well being and that they must be concern with the overall health of their family and community; and that the lives of each family member and that of the community are bound together, and that the success of any one their lives is an aspect of and dependent on the goodness and health of the community as a whole;  and that finally, there can be no private accounting of the success or failure of their individual lives one by one. The community and the families which make up the community are responsible for the success and failure of the community in its totality.

Secondly, an underlining assumption and practice of the principle of Ujima is that it is the adults in the child’s environment which dictate and determine the child’s life chances and possibilities. Children and youth are utterly incapable of orienting themselves. Parents and a network of nurturing adults provide a compass point for children, grounding them in values and social practices which are consistent with healthy development.

Thirdly, the principle and practice of Ujima connects children and youth with a network of caring and nurturing adults. This is critical to the development of youth as health and contributing adults. Kids now are more disconnected with caring adults and spend more and more of their time with other children as opposed to caring adults.  Traditionally, children became adults by being initiated into adulthood by adults. Now kids are initiated by other kids, and there you have one of the root causes of the gang phenomenon and youth drug use. The structure of adult lives, in particular parents- work and computing- competes and deprives children of the time they need to connect with their primary caregivers. Ujima through its village concept and practice attaches children and youth to adults and to adult structures which can provide them with the clues for healthy development.

As Kwanzaa holiday approaches, December 26, 2010, parents and teachers should use the values of Kwanzaa and the holiday itself to begin to address the crisis of development among our children and youth. In addition to its guiding principles, Ujima in particular, Kwanzaa provides the means and blueprint for a modern day village which provides conditions for healthy child and brain development.

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