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Is Sophistication Desirable?

Japanese Chinese

What would you think if someone said to you, "You don't know anything about the world!"

It might not be so disturbing if the comment came from someone more experienced and in a higher position or from an older person, but most people would be offended if it came from one of their peers. And anyone would be irritated if told this by someone younger or in a lower position.

So, is it a good thing to be knowledgeable about the world? If we encountered a child who was familiar with life and how the world works, I think we would find him or her cocky or cheeky. In other words, sophistication is not necessarily seen as a desirable trait in children. This is because it's sometimes good for children not to know how the world works.

Why do I bring this topic up? If you keep reading until the end, you will understand, but first let me tell you about two different experiences that spurred me to write this.

The first is the American literary work, Winesburg, Ohio, a popular best-selling book by Sherwood Anderson written at the turn of the 20th century. It consists of short episodes in the private lives of people in a fictional small town in Ohio. One tale titled "Sophistication," tells of a young man and woman, childhood friends who grew up together in the town, and how they gradually become aware of each other as members of the opposite sex. The young man finally professes his love before he is due to leave town to attend university. For Anderson, awareness of the opposite sex is clearly one aspect of learning about how the world works, but I bring this up here to point out that the word "sophistication" in the English title was translated as "sekenchi" or "knowledge of the ways of the world" in Japanese. Today, in the United States, "sophistication" tends to refer to something "refined," but English language dictionaries from the 1920s indicate that the word was used to mean "impure" and "brazen." We see that for Anderson, being aware of the opposite sex had this connotation. The tale also conveys the slightly humorous sense that children become "brazen" as they become adults.

And in a previous blog, I wrote about the self-esteem of children. I am now conducting comparative research on children's self-esteem in several Asian nations and examining whether the self-esteem of Japanese children is really lower than that of children in other countries. The research has produced interesting results. In the survey, five-year old children and their parents were asked the same questions about children's sense of self-esteem (a positive sense of self). With a few exceptions, the survey clearly showed that children evaluated themselves far more highly in all areas than their parents did. Worldwide studies on children's self-esteem show that children in all countries report a sharp drop in self-esteem after entering elementary school from kindergarten or preschool. Elementary school teachers evaluate children's abilities more objectively than parents do, and it is within this environment that the self-esteem of children drops. Becoming familiar with the ways of the world involves learning how the world works and one's relative position within it, so by becoming more sophisticated, their self-esteem declines.

As they learn about the world and how it works, children start to lose the sense of capability and competence that they had as infants and preschoolers.

Now after reading this, don't you feel that you understand how Peter Pan feels?


Sakakihara_Yoichi.bmp Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, Executive Advisor of Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD), President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before working with Ochanomizu University.

In this provocative post, Dr. Sakakihara poses some central dilemmas of child development. How to nurture children's curiosity about the world during their preschool years as they enter formal schooling? Can schools encourage creativity and exploration at the same time that they impart skills of literacy and numeracy? And what is the role of collaborative learning, learning with and through others? While developing self-esteem and confidence in one's abilities?

My own view is that the progressive education movement, founded by Montessori, Dewey, and others offers the best hope for balancing these dilemmas. Schools that embrace these ideals are increasing in number but are often frustrated by the policy emphasis on mass education (one size fits all) and standardized testing.

Thanks to Dr. Sakakihara and to Milton Chen for continuing a discussion about self-esteem. I believe that children with ADHD have a particular problem with self-esteem. Because of their inability to focus they do not please their teachers, their group leaders in sports, etc., their parents and they become angry. When our son was in the second grade I discovered that the teacher had moved his desk into the locker room, and she had not listed him as a "problem kid" with the school principal, who might have taught her coping skills to deal with an active kid. The expensive, private school we sent him to, said that there was nothing wrong with his intelligence, but that he was disruptive. The psychiatrist we consulted put him on medication, which made him drowsy and unable to perform. As parents we were at a loss. We saw how angry he was without successes and tried to compensate with praise, but he must have sensed many times that we were not pleased either.
With no sense of self-worth and a feeling of belonging where he was appreciated, he joined kids who were stealing and into drugs. He was in and out of trouble for years. One of his counselors reached him and made him feel that he had a mission in life. He discovered that painting houses and interiors enabled him to see a job well-done, a job which brought appreciation from others and a chance to take courses and become more proficient. His self-esteem grew. Fortunately more is being learned and passed on to care-givers and teachers about FASD and how to manage so that the child does not lose his/her sense of self-worth. As parents and care-givers we want our children to have self-esteem so that the have the confidence to tackle new things and meet life's challenges head on. The world needs young people with the self-confidence to reach out to understand people who are different from themselves so that differences are settled peacefully.

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