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The Danger of Deficit Thinking

As parents, we worry about the dangers our children face in school each day: bullies, drugs, gangs, indiscriminate violence, guns, etc. These are the obvious dangers, the ones we see and hear about on our local news. But, there's an even greater danger to our children. Its insidious in nature and has the potential to damage our children's still developing psyches and prevent them from moving forward successfully into the future.

My goodness, what could be so awful? The answer is simple: deficit thinking.

What? Deficit thinking (see "Social Darwinism," "Deficit Theory," "Cultural Deficit Theory," "Cultural Difference Theory," "Cultural Ecology," "Culture of Poverty") results when people perceive that a member of group xx has specific life experiences because of his/her group association; and, because of these experiences, will exhibit behaviors that result in negative life outcomes.

Okay. And that means...? It's easiest to explain how deficit thinkers operate using an illustration. Jack, an 8th grader, is a member of a single-parent household. His family lives in a large urban area on the fringe of the inner-city. Jack's mom works full-time, but needs public assistance to help cover food, housing and medical costs for herself and her children. The deficit thinker--a teacher, principal, counselor, mentor or other significant adult figure who has read and been "trained" in one of the deficit theories--sees Jack, makes a quick evaluation of him and his family based solely on what he/she "sees" at first meeting, automatically sums up Jack's external characteristics (single-parent, urban living, low-income, public assistance) and leaps to the assumption (again, based on the "training" associated with one of these deficit theories) that Jack couldn't possibly have access to adequateIn fact, the deficit thinker sincerely believes that Jack is so lacking and so needy and has so many social and cultural deficits created by his circumstances, he's obviously not going to do well in school, is likely to have a multitude of behavioral problems, will be more likely to stop-out or drop-out of school without finishing a high-school diploma, likely won't earn a GED, won't attend post-secondary training or college, and will be very unlikely to find future employment that pays a living wage.

Wow! That's certainly quite a leap, given the significant adult figure typically "knows" nothing personally about Jack or his family. Unfortunately, even personally "knowing" something about Jack and/or his family isn't likely to sway a deficit thinker. These individuals are typically so grounded in their negativity they refuse to see and are unable to recognize the positives in Jack's life: he has a mother that loves him and his siblings and works very hard to see that their needs--all of them--are met to the best of her ability; he has a roof over his head; his clothes, worn they may be, are neat and clean; with the help of the school's food program and public assistance, he eats three square meals a day; he has access to regular and emergency medical care; his grades aren't stellar, but they're good, solid, B's and he makes them consistently; and his attendance is good.

The deficit thinker would tell you this isn't at all normal. As a member of their pre-defined group xx, the deficit thinker would say that Jack is pre-destined for failure. He needs to be "saved" from his circumstances; and only a specially trained advocate who knows how to recognize the deficits associated with his group membership can effectively meet Jack's very special needs.

In my opinion, deficit thinking smacks of a variety of "-isms" -- none of which are at all morally or ethically acceptable in a multi-cultural, global environment. Child A may have a different set of skills and experiences than Child B; but that in no way means Child A's skills and experiences are inferior to Child B's. Our children's futures aren't predetermined. No one is "destined for failure" -- at least not until we convince them they are through our good efforts to help them overcome their deficits and "save them" from their lives.

Why do I say this? Substitute "Lynn" in place of "Jack" in the example above and you've got the why of the matter. Neither I nor many of my friends in school nor the children I work with now who come from similar backgrounds would have ever considered ourselves "at-risk" of anything (failure, dropping out, etc.) without some significant adult somewhere (mostly at school) telling us, repeatedly, how "at-risk" we were. If not for the support of my parent and all of those "deficit" filled friends, I wouldn't be where I am today. My friend Rose wouldn't be a pediatrician. My friend Jean Paul wouldn't be a fashion designer. I could go on for a very long while; but I think you get the picture.

To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, our children have brains in their head and feet in their shoes. They make their own paths in this life; if, that is, they are encouraged by the significant adults in their lives to believe that they can. The next time a deficit thinker tells you that because you are a membes of group xx your children have "special needs" or face "extraordinary challenges," suggest they have their eyes examined as they're obviously not looking at your child as an individual. Ignore the deficit thinkers. Feed your children’s hopes and dreams; then, that which they have thus far only imagined (college, becoming a doctor/lawyer, whatever) can become reality.

Until next time!

Lynn Byrne

Preparing for college admissions? Trying to find direction? Need a little help with the planning? Check out my college planning series:

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