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Elizabeth Allen is an only child who has been spoilt by her parents. All her life she had done as she liked and she was so used to getting her own way that when things were not going as she wished she would get very upset and outraged. Her parents decide to send her away to boarding school and Elizabeth is determined to misbehave so that she will be expelled and be sent back home.
At first she is disliked by her peers, but gradually learns how to share and make friends. Whyteleafe is a progressive school - the students hold weekly meetings chaired by a Head Boy and Head Girl. At the meetings they all decide how to discipline naughty children and take any other decisions. The children only seek the Head teachers' advice when there is a problem they cannot solve themselves. Elizabeth particularly admires Rita and William, the Head Girl and Head Boy. Rita tells her that a girl in her class, Joan is not happy and asks Elizabeth to try and make friends with Joan. Joan encourages her not to misbehave and advises her to be good.
During one of the meetings, Elizabeth asks permission to leave the school by half-term and her request is accepted. From then on, her behaviour improves a lot. She also makes good progress at her piano lessons, helps in the school garden, enjoys horse riding and is very good at her studies. She and Joan become very good friends and Joan confides in her. She tells her how hurt she is because her mother neglects her and how she wishes that she would get letters and presents from her. Elizabeth has an idea and buys Joan a large cake, a present, and cards to be sent to Joan for her birthday, as if these are from her mother and father. Joan is delighted but then discovers that her mother did not send anything. Joan is devastated, runs away in the rain and becomes very ill. Elizabeth feels guilty and writes to Joan's mother and confesses everything. Joan's mother arrives to visit her daughter and admits that her neglect of Joan started from the death of Joan's twin brother. Her mother is sorry and Joan forgives her. Joan is happy again and gets better. In the meantime, Elizabeth faces a dilemma - whether to leave or stay at Whyteleafe. With Rita and William's help she decides to stay since she realises that she is happy at school.
Self Concept is the set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an individual believes defines who he or she is. 'Self-concept refers to the descriptive aspect of the self (e.g. `I do well on reading tests'), while self-esteem refers to the evaluative aspects (e.g. `I like reading'). However, the contemporary view is that these differences are difficult to separate and that self-concept contains both descriptive and evaluative components'. Elizabeth Allen like most of her peers (in middle childhood) describes her personality mentioning positive and negative aspects of her character. Erikson mentions this particular stage of development as the school age (Meyer et al 1989) or the latency stage (Maddi, 1996). This period happens before puberty and is very important in the development of cognitive, social and emotional skills as well as the development of the self-concept (Louw, 1991).
During the first half term at Whyteleafe school Elizabeth begins to construct a self-concept - she becomes conscious about her horrid behaviour, about being spoilt and stubborn. She also becomes aware of being academically good, loyal, altruistic and strong in character. Unfortunately, due to her resolution to be expelled, she makes sure not to give a good impression of herself.
Research has shown that 'overly tolerant indulgent parenting is linked to unrealistically high self esteem, which also undermines development. These children tend to lash out at challenges to their overblown self-images and are also likely to have adjustment problems, including meanness and aggression.' (Hughs, Cavell, & Grossman, 1997). This is reflected in Elizabeth's case. Her parents and her governess are aware of the situationâ€¦'The trouble is that people have loved you too much. You are pretty, and merry, and rich, so you have been spoilt. 'People like the way you look, the way you smile, and your pretty clothes so they fuss you, and pet you, and spoil you, instead of treating you like an ordinary child.'
She is spoilt so much that she has become selfish and always wants to have her own way at all costs. Her selfishness features particularly in
Not caring about the distress she would cause to her parents
Challenging the rules at school as well as the monitors' roles, hence annoying other students and wasting their time.
Not giving her self a chance to enjoy what she is doing.
Almost immediately Elizabeth falls in love with Whyteleafe School and she knows that life at school, with many other children, a real music teacher and other numerous activities, could be very exciting. However Elizabeth is too stubborn to change her mind. It never occurs to Elizabeth that 'to be expelled' is an extreme sanction, so she never considers the possibility of encountering tolerant people (like William Rita, Ms Belle and Ms Best) and even less the possibility of paying the consequences as deemed fit by her peers instead of by her teachers.
Elizabeth first admits that she really is spoilt when she realises that Joan, one of her class-mates, is yearning for all the things that she takes for granted, namely her parents' love and attention. This incident, together with other incidents, like the time she meets Rita when she goes to the village on her own, helps Elizabeth to start evaluating herself. Maybe because of the fact that she is still young and because of her obsession to leave school, it never occurs to her, that her appalling behaviour is annoying everybody. Elizabeth is far from pleased when she hears what the others think about her. She does not mean to be horrid to the others. 'I think I am a horrid girlâ€¦â€¦â€¦ I really don't mean to make others unhappy.' Elizabeth respects and admires Rita; in fact she does not want to disappoint her. Elizabeth is willing to collaborate with Rita to make Joan happy and she is very sensitive about this person's situation. Notwithstanding, her efforts are limited because she is resolute to being expelled.
During her first days in the school Elizabeth does not try to make any friends. When Rita tells her about Joan and the reason she does not have any friends, Elizabeth tries to befriend Joan and they become very good friends. The close friendship that forms between them permitted both girls to "explore their self and develop a deep understanding of one another. They became sensitive to each other's strengths and weaknesses, needs and desires, a process that supports the development of self-concept". In particular, it helps Elizabeth analyse her personality through social referencing, which is a comparison of one's self to another person. This friendship also helps Elizabeth become conscious of how kind and caring she can be to others.
As soon as Elizabeth and Joan open up to each other, they become inseparable - partly because they are each other's only friend, but also due to the fact that they are each other's confidante. We immediately see Elizabeth's loyalty towards Joan, as she is always defending her whenever anyone tries to make fun of her friend. This is probably due to the fact that having Joan by her side gives her a higher self-esteem. Having a friend by your side boosts your self-esteem, especially when there is mutual understanding. Now Elizabeth has Joan to protect and this obviously makes her feel superior and more in control. She feels that she has to defend Joan, who is just like "a timid mouse", and this makes Elizabeth more responsible and loyal. Joan's friendship is something new for Elizabeth, as she has never had a best friend before her. This is where Elizabeth learns that it is not true that other children don't love her. It is only the fact that she has never tried to befriend others that has left her with no friends and a fear of being taken to a school full of children. Of course, this has a positive effect on her self-concept and self-esteem, as she understands that if she tries to make friends and be nice, she will be well-liked.
This self-concept, the fact that she had a good heart, gives Elizabeth high self-esteem. She is incredulous when Miss Scott tells her that having a pretty face and smile is not enough but that she should have a good heart too. In fact she replies by saying: "I have got a good heart". She is determined not to be thought mean, as having a good heart is important to her. On the first day, she tells Nora that she does not want to share her teatime treats with the others, just to spite the school conventions. But when she realizes that people will think she is mean, she changes her mind and starts to share: "She didn't mind being thought naughty, but being thought mean was different." Her good heart is most evident in her relationship with Joan. She is always thinking about what she can do for Joan - wanting money to buy sweets to share with her; sharing the stamps her mother sends her, and eventually when she spends all her money to buy Joan a birthday cake, presents and birthday cards, pretending to be Joan's mother - all this to make her friend happy. These things show what a good heart Elizabeth has and they also show how good Elizabeth feels when giving these things to Joan: "â€¦Miss Scott was quiet right!" thought Elizabeth, in surprise. "I'm getting more fun out of giving these things, than if I was receiving them myself!"
She shows her responsibility and loyalty, not only in her friendship with Joan, but also in the respect towards her parents. When her parents are blamed for Elizabeth's naughty behaviour, Elizabeth defends them fiercely. She wants everyone to know that her bad behaviour is her own doing and that her parents have good manners, as opposed to hers'. Having strangers speaking disrespectfully about the people we love makes us uncomfortable and unless we can change what these people think, we will feel that we have failed in protecting our loved ones. This is what happens to Elizabeth in the second meeting. She feels that with her behaviour she has misguided William's and Rita's reasoning and her parents would now suffer the consequences of her actions - something she has never thought would occur. Therefore her self-esteem lapsed because she feels she has been unsuccessful - towards getting what she wants, and towards protecting her parents.
Elizabeth is so absorbed in her plans to surprise Joan that she forgets completely about the rule that she should put the money in the school money box. When she is confronted by Nora, at the weekly meeting, that she was seen in the village spending a lot of money, she confesses that she had forgotten all about the school but was adamant about not giving away her secret , thus not to humiliate Joan. This further shows Elizabeth's strong sense of loyalty and how her self-esteem about this issue would not be compromised even though she had meant to be good. Laura Berke (2009) explains how 'trust', hence loyalty (for 10 year olds like Elizabeth) becomes a defining feature in friendship. Violation of trust would be considered as a serious breach of friendship.
After a few weeks that she had been at Whyteleafe, Elizabeth admits publicly at a school meeting that she does not want to stay at school. William and Rita, being older than her, realise that this request was just an obsession. They know that Elizabeth has many good qualities and that she can be a very good student. The head children together with the monitors take Miss Bell's advice since they all believe that Elizabeth should be given the possibility to leave Whyteleafe at half term. This agreement is two-fold
Elizabeth need not misbehave till then; instead she will have the opportunity to enjoy school.
The children are so happy at Whyteleafe and proud of their school that they are almost sure that at the end Elizabeth would change her mind and stay.
Once Elizabeth is consented the option to leave school, life at school is different. Both her social and academic self-esteem improve a lot. Her superiors and her peers start to acknowledge her good qualities and competencies. This new behaviour makes all the students see Elizabeth in a new light and they can finally decide whether they truly liked her or not. She then integrates so well that she is faced with another dilemma!
A strong psychological characteristic in Elizabeth's Me-Self is that she is aware and proud to be a strong and determined person. 'Children attach greater importance to certain self-judgements, giving them more weight in the total picture.' (Klomsten, Skaalvik & Espnes, 2004; Shapka & Keating, 2005).
How can she change her mind about leaving school after all that she has said to her mother and after all the havoc that she has created at school?! In spite of the fact that she is enjoying school she is determined to stick to her original decision. She is so proud that she thinks that it would be weak to change her mind. "But I can't change my mind. I said I meant to go home at half-term, and I'm going to. It's only feeble people that change their minds, and say first one thing and then another. I'm not going to be like that." Elizabeth shares her feelings with William, whom she likes and respects. William being older and more mature, gives her some food for thought, in order to evaluate and challenge her self-concept. He tells her that although it is good to be strong and decisive, she will be feeble not to change her mind, once she is proven wrong. Elizabeth's self-esteem will not tolerate to be considered feeble and coward. In her book, Laura Berke states that the changing content of the self is a product of both cognitive capacities and feedback from others. In fact, it is at this point, when she hears William's opinion, that Elizabeth starts to reconsider her situation but it's an extremely tough decision to take.
Throughout the story, Elizabeth's personality changes significantly mainly with regards to how selfish and proud she was at the beginning. I think that this has much to do with her friendship with Joan and the other children and the incidents that happen during her stay there. In fact at the end of the story, when her mother comes to visit, she is surprised at the "change in her little girl. Could this really be Elizabeth - this good-mannered, polite, happy child? Everyone seemed to like her. She had lots of friends".