A Different Kind of Pyramid for Memphis

For many of us, it’s been some time since we learned in psychology class about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Since then, most of us haven’t given it much thought, and that’s too bad.

How can we apply Maslow's Hierarchy in helping Memphis children? Tweet this!

We got a reminder of its relevance a few years ago, when Chip Conley’s hotel chain was named as #1 in customer service. He credited the success to building a business model based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which was summed up in Conley’s book, Peak: How Great Companies Get their Mojo from Maslow.

Here’s the Cliff Notes about Maslow’s Hierarchy: It consists of the five levels of human needs, generally represented in a pyramid. The bottom level, the foundation, is physical needs. The second level is safety, the third level is love, the fourth level is self-esteem, and the fifth level (and peak of the pyramid) is self-actualization. Maslow believed that people are born with the need to become self-actualized, but to succeed at this, they first have to have their more basic needs met — physical, safety, love, and self-esteem.

The importance to early childhood is clear and unmistakable, and it presents this question: if an entrepreneur can build a successful business based on Maslow’s needs, what kind of community could we build if we did the same for our youngest children?

Climbing the Pyramid

Working from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, our first community priority is to respond to the physiological needs of children. A child who is cold, hungry, and malnourished has a weak foundation for future development.

The second level of priority, using Maslow’s pyramid, is to ensure that each child feels safe and secure. Mayor Wharton once told of families living in areas where they teach their children where to hide when they hear gunfire. Persistent stress attacks the sense of security that a child needs to have for healthy social and emotional development. Children need structure and order, freedom from fear, and the confidence that their caregivers are able to protect them.

The third level of the pyramid is about unconditional love and a sense of belonging. It comes from parents and caregivers who take time to explore and play with children and from children’s opportunities to play and interact with their peers. It underscores the importance of quality child care facilities and positive parenting. Loneliness and anxiety make it harder to achieve the emotional progress needed in the first years of life. Children who lack sufficient nurturing in the early years of their lives fail to thrive even when they are fed, sheltered, clean, and warm.

The fourth level of Maslow’s hierarchy is esteem. This includes the need for respect and recognition from others, but also the need for self-respect. This feeling of confidence, achievement, and self-worth is even more important than the respect of others, because low self-esteem can become the root of so many other problems. This is the stage when respect from parents and teachers, positive discipline, lessons in life skills, and protection from bullying and discrimination are key.

Finally, there is the peak of the pyramid, self-actualization. When a child’s first four types of needs are met, the stage is set for him to function more fully. He learns to take responsibility, control his emotions, and be self-aware and self-confident. He is well-prepared to reach his full potential. Maslow suggests that the reason children falter is because the four needs ahead of self-actualization aren’t fully met, and because of it, a child cannot receive the maximum benefit from school.

Building a Maslow-based Agenda for Memphis

Too many of our community’s children live in families that struggle to meet these needs. To compound things, they are told that they live in failing neighborhoods that are unsafe and blighted. The schools they attend are labeled failures. They feel that they are often characterized as problems to be addressed rather than opportunities to be pursued.

The first step as a community in addressing Maslow’s needs is to use the hierarchy as the context for making wise policy and funding decisions, to set priorities that support parenting skills and enrichment opportunities for children, and to adopt language that tells children they are valued by their own community.

In setting an agenda for our youngest children, we need to visit neighborhoods, child care centers, and schools to be reminded why it is important for all of us who care about our community to get this right.