Teenagers desperately want to fit into a peer group. If they feel rejected, ostracized, labeled, teased or bullied, they can develop all kinds of problems. Adolescence is an extremely sensitive time of life when young people tend to make lasting judgments about themselves and others and often need help to find the good in themselves and others.
The prevailing tendency among young people who do not yet have a faith-based orientation is to think that “what you are now is what you’re always going to be.” In other words, their mindset is that peoples’ personalities are fixed and that they won’t be able to improve themselves.
The alternative to having a fixed mindset about a person’s potential for growth is to adopt a growth mindset in which one believes that people are essentially good and are capable of growth and change.
Researchers recruited one hundred and fifty 9th graders from a California high school and met with them one time at the beginning of the school year. They gave them the following message: “If anybody rejects you, leaves you out, bothers you or bullies you this year, we want you to know that it is not because of any deficiency in you or in the other person. The person who may tease you, embarrass you or ignore you is not a bad person, he or she is a person with complicated issues, but they have the potential and ability to change.”
When the school year came to an end, the research team, once again, gathered together the same group of teens that they met with at the beginning of the year. They gave them a questionnaire for the purpose of measuring their levels of anxiety, stress, self-esteem and physical health.
The researchers found that the students who were given the message to have a “growth-mindset” scored higher in all four areas that were measured. The group that received the positive message had lower anxiety levels, less stress, higher self-esteem and better physical health when compared to a similar (control group) of 9th graders from the same school who had not been given this message.
The same study was then repeated with several other high schools and the results consistently matched the results of the first study. One simple positive message to young people from authority figures was enough to make an enormous difference in how they judged themselves and their peers. Imagine what kind of a world we would have if our youth were constantly receiving positive messages like this one.
Rebbe Nachman said that the power of growth is faith. A central component of our faith is our belief that people can grow, improve and change. Our belief in the inherent goodness of the individual is the foundation of our way of life.
The concept of repentance attests to our certainty that even people who have engaged in the worst behaviors imaginable and who have committed the worst offenses against mankind are capable of returning back to a life of decency. Cain was the first person in history to commit murder - he murdered his brother Abel in cold blood as a result of his intense jealousy and sibling rivalry. Yet G-d was perfectly willing to accept Cain’s heartfelt confession, plea for forgiveness and commitment to improve himself in the future.
Most of us don’t do anything nearly as bad as Cain did. If G-d recognizes that even murderers have the ability to improve and change, shouldn’t we recognize our own vast potential to become all that we can be?