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Kids are hearing more "me first" than "united we stand" in the books they read

July 10, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
I had books called "Free to be You and Me" and "I'm OK, You're OK" when I was a little girl that I always found slightly saccharine. I also think they were a little ahead of the curve, since kids today are reading a lot more about how special they are than they are about the importance of teamwork.

That's according to a story in USA Today, which ran a story Tuesday about an analysis of words and phrases in more than 750,000 American books published in the last 50 years. The study was done by psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego University and two of her colleagues. They did studies using 20 words and 20 phrases chosen by panel that they decided put an emphasis on either individualism or community.

Twenge and her co-authors concluded that the words that were used in books back in the 1960s put a greater emphasis on community than the literature of recent years, which puts much greater emphasis on being an individual.

Individualistic words analyzed in the study included: independent, individual, individually, unique, uniqueness, self, independence, oneself, soloist, identity, personalized, solo, solitary, personalize, loner, standout, single, personal, sole, singularity.

Individualistic phrases included: All about me, captain of my ship, focus on the self, I am special, I am the greatest, I can do it myself, I come first, I get what I want, I have my own style, I love me, I'm the best, looking out for number one, me against the world, me first, my needs, self love, self reliance, self sufficient, and there's only one you, what's right for me.

Any or all of those words probably were used a lot in the childhood self esteem manuals I read. They also sound like some of the campaign rhetoric I heard about "rugged individualists" and "My body, my choice."

Communal words analyzed in the study included: Communal, community, commune, unity, communitarian, united, teamwork, team, collective, village, tribe, collectivization, group, collectivism, everyone, family, share, socialism, tribal, union.

Communal phrases analyzed included: All in this together, band together, community goals, community spirit, common good, communal living, concern for the group, contribute to your community, it takes a village, sense of community, sharing of resources, strength through unity, the group is very important, the needs of all, together we are strong, united we stand, we are one, we can do it together, work as a team, working for the whole.

I thought the communal phrases sounded a lot like labor union literature or a political rally, either Democratic or Republican. How many of them would you find in the average book?

Personally, I have a negative reaction to an over emphasis on either the individualistic or the communal language. The first sounds self-centered; the second group of words puts too great an emphasis on the rights of the group over the individual. What is needed is a healthy balance between the two, but I don't think that's something I've heard or seen much of lately in a lot of the books I've read or from political campaigns.

It probably isn't a coincidence that I saw a separate article this week about a dramatic decline in church attendance and speculation that it was due to a lack of faith in institutions.

I don't think we live in a well-balanced society. It makes me wonder what an overdose of either philosophy is likely to do to the kids being educated in today's schools. The study appears in the online journal PLoS One


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