Oh, Say, Can You See?

A story of pride, compassion, and positive youth development.

Posted Jul 01, 2011

July 4th teenager
The 4th of July rarely passes without my remembering one of the most moving renditions of the Star Spangled Banner I've ever witnessed. It made me proud to live in small-town America and to be connected to something greater than myself. It also made me aware of how our coming together in community influences future generations and how one teachable moment can change the course of a child's life. Whether we come together to celebrate our nation's independence, gather at sports events, or assemble for a common cause, these experiences remind us of a world beyond ourselves - a world that that will be inherited by our children and grandchildren.

In a stadium filled with hundreds of people, a teenage girl, perhaps 15 years of age, was introduced to sing the Star Spangled Banner. As she began to sing her solo, with no musical accompaniment, her voice began to crack.  She quickly recovered after an uncomfortable chuckle and clearing of her throat, only to lose her voice again as she attempted to sing, "And the rocket's red glare..."

Did the crowd react with a gasp of disbelief? No. Did we cross our fingers and hope she could make a comeback? No. We reacted spontaneously, with compassion and support. We began to hum the music in the background, like we were her musical instruments. Our humming provided a soft framework of guidance and let her know she was not alone. She was supported by hundreds of strangers who, at any given moment, would have begun to sing if she faltered again.

The audience's humming was subtle and subdued; we never took the song away from this young girl. After the humming began, you could see and hear her confidence rise. She never lost her voice again.  As tears streamed from the adult faces in the audience, she was given a huge round of applause. I had goose bumps -- filled with pride for this teenager and for my community.  We stepped up to the plate, showing our children that it's not about always being the best; it's about the process of becoming your best.

July 4th crowd
Our praise and applause had everything to do with how one teenager overcame an obstacle and persevered despite challenges. It was a natural, supportive, and caring thing to do. Research shows that teenagers develop initiative by overcoming challenges. Children are connected through their communities - teachers, coaches, families, friends, and civic leaders. Together and individually, we support them in the background, help them believe in themselves, and express pride in their efforts, large and small.

What we know about humming is that you can't really tell where one person begins and another ends. The sound is an interconnected web of relationships working together. These relationships help kids thrive through struggle and disappointment. They model to other children that we can fail, yet something good can happen as a result.

Learning from Mistakes: Helping Kids See the Good Side of Getting Things Wrong provides guidelines to help children learn when things don't happen as planned.  Children's stories of struggle, moments of success, and the meaning they attach to their experiences and relationships shape not only the people they become but how they engage with their life goals.

When we view youth development through a lens of positive relationships and interconnectedness, we begin to recognize that a child's ability to thrive is dependent on many moments of success.  And those moments are neither predictable nor prescribed. In fact, we are often called upon to recognize them spontaneously. I'll always remember one teenager's performance of the Star Spangled Banner as being one of those teachable moments for all of us.

©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and researcher working at the intersection of psychology, education, and civic engagement. Follow her on TWITTER or FACEBOOK.