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Fostering a Positive Self-Concept in Black Children


By Steve Johnson, creator of the Fearless Five

Enhancing the development of a positive self-concept in young, black children is important because it affects behavior related to all aspects of daily life. It is important to know that according to experts, a person’s self-concept is established quite early in life—40 percent of an individual’s mature ego development is actually achieved by age seven. Though it can always be enhanced or devalued, one’s self-concept also requires continual maintenance and support.


It is a well-known fact that children within the black community are bombarded early in life with images that define ‘beauty’, ‘intelligence’ or ‘success’ which run counter to the images they view in their own mirrors.  This effectively devalues their self-concept at a critical stage.  There exists a lack of appreciation for differing definitions of ‘beauty’, ‘intelligence’ or ‘success’ in major societal institutions with the media outlets of television, radio and print having the most influence.  The effects of this push toward conformity in definitions are evident in the well known diversity experiment conducted in 1954 by Kenneth Clark.  The experiment encompassed showing Black children a white doll and a black doll and then asking them a set of questions on their opinions of the dolls.  Initially, many of the children are first asked which doll they preferred.  The wide majority of the children chose the white doll because they thought it looked ‘prettier’.  In another sample, the children are first asked to select the doll that looks ‘bad’, they overwhelmingly chose the Black doll.  In several instances, when subsequently asked to select the doll that looks like them, the children first touch the white doll, but then hesitantly select the black doll.  Sadly, this experiment was conducted again fifty years later by Kiri Davis and yielded the same result.  These findings reveal a significant need to offer these children images that foster a positive self-concept.


Individuals with positive self-concept will aspire to leadership, are willing to receive constructive criticism, and are willing to risk more often. Associated with positive self-concept and self-esteem is a belief that one’s success or failure is dependent upon one’s efforts, actions, and abilities. They take responsibility for their actions and believe that they have control and influence over the events in their lives. Those with a high positive self-concept accept responsibility for their own actions. They tolerate frustration well, know how to deal with adversity in positive ways, feel able to influence their environments, and are proud of their deeds.


Individuals with negative self-concepts will avoid leadership roles, criticism, and risk-taking. Individuals with low self-esteem have less ability to resist peer pressure, media influences, and propaganda. Those with a low self-image also tend to have less motivation for learning and work, and generally poorer emotional and psychological health and well-being. They are more prone to drug abuse, pregnancy outside of marriage, to drop out of school, or engage in socially unacceptable behaviors of all kinds, especially acts of delinquency or violence against others. Negative self-esteem is credited with being one of the major causes of deviant or potentially destructive behavior. They are easily frustrated, blame others for their short-comings, avoid difficult situations so as not to “fail,” and are dependent upon others to tell them “how they are doing.”


There is a lot of information suggesting that what adults (parents and teachers) do to set the stage for a child to develop a positive self concept is critically important. Adults can be most helpful as they model and facilitate children’s involvement in:

  • Goal Setting–so they learn the process of setting realistic goals on their own rather than relying on goals determined by others. Helping children establish self-set, realistic goals is one of the most important things parents and teachers can do.
  • Self Determination in Evaluation–so they identify their own criteria and establish benchmarks to measure progress, developing trust in their own evaluations.
  • Decision-Making–encouraging experimentation and exploration as they learn how to develop their own strategies for working toward goals.
  • Cooperation–so they realize their and others’ unique strengths and the contributions each can make as they work together in groups toward common goals.
  • Trusting–so they will be open and honest with their feelings, yet accepting the strengths of others as they recognize their own.


As we work with children, to facilitate the development of a positive self-image, we will be most successful when we–

  • model the behavior we teach
  • offer examples of the model behavior through positive imagery
  • accommodate and support differences
  • celebrate diversity rather than conformity
  • encourage participation in decision-making
  • use much less criticism and support children taking on responsibilities
  • give specific reasons for praise

Facilitating the development of a positive self-concept is critically important and the ways to do it are clear. We should make it evident to children, especially young, black children that each of us is unique, and that each of us wants to feel good about him/herself, trust ourselves and others, and make contributions to our communities. We can play a central role in off-setting the negative influences which bombard a child’s sense of self-worth by encouraging rather than discouraging the next generation.


Steve Johnson is the owner of HNK (Happy, Nurturing and Kind) Concepts and creator of the Fearless Five, an adorable team of young children that imagine themselves as superheroes and go on exciting adventures together.  His company offers a popular picture book series (for ages 3 to 9) along with an apparel line (for all ages) through the website

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