The Significant Seven

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by H. Stephen Glenn & Jane Nelsen

From the book Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World.

Every human being is born with the potential to become the world's most capable creature, not with the capabilities themselves. Unlike the amoeba, which is capable of functioning at its full potential from creation, humans acquire their capabilities primarily through apprenticeship: young human beings learn from those who have preceded them. When this apprenticeship is adequate, their toolboxes of life, which were empty at birth, are filled with the essential tools for effective living. In times of change, these tools, which we call life resources, are particularly critical.

For convenience we usually refer to these assets as "the Significant Seven." Ironically, researchers initially identified them almost by their absence. Insight dawned slowly as we reviewed research on those young people most likely to become clients of the criminal justice system, human services system, and social welfare system and those who failed to realize potential in school. Many of these people, we discovered, were those most poorly developed in these seven areas. Conversely, people who are living effectively and who are outstanding in many walks of life were characterized by unusual strength and adequacy in the Significant Seven.

Children and adults who are most at risk in behavioral health areas such as drugs, early pregnancy, delinquency, gangs, chronic academic problems, and so forth, are characteristically weak and/or inadequate in several if not all of the Significant Seven. Interestingly, research shows that people who have been living effectively but who become chemically dependent for any period of time normally regress in most of these areas. Once they are detoxified, the recovery process seeks to strengthen and/or rebuild the Significant Seven to help them maintain their recovery and begin to grow again. In fact, it might be said that all children are born at risk to problems of dependency. The perceptions and skills that are necessary for self-reliance and effective living require development and maintenance.

Significant Seven

Universal research reveals that children who become successful adults posses the following abilities.

  1. I am confident of my personal capability when faced with challenges.
  2. I believe I am personally significant and make meaningful contributions.
  3. I have a positive influence over my life; I take responsibility for my choices.
  4. I have strong intrapersonal skills and I manage my emotions through self-awareness and self-discipline.
  5. I have strong interpersonal skills and I am able to effectively communicate, negotiate, and empathize with others.
  6. I am able to adapt with flexibility and integrity, I have strong systemic skills.
  7. I have well developed judgment skills and able to make decisions with integrity.

Now consider the characteristics of low-risk individuals—people unlikely to fall into the known problem areas and likely to prove themselves successful, productive, capable human beings. They have developed the following:

Perception of personal capabilities—capable of facing problems and learning through challenges and experiences.

Perceptions of personal significance--capable of contributing in meaningful ways and believing that life has meaning and purpose.

Perceptions of personal influence over life—capacity to understand that one's actions and choices influence one's life and hold one accountable.

Intrapersonal skills—capacity to manage emotions through self-assessment, self-control and self-discipline.

Interpersonal skills—capacities necessary to deal effectively with others through communication, cooperation, negotiation, sharing, empathizing, and listening.

Systemic skills—capacity for responding to the limits, consequences, and interrelatedness of human and natural systems with responsibility, adaptability, flexibility, and integrity.

Judgment skills—capacity for making decisions and choices that reflect moral and ethical principles, wisdom, and values.

A primary goal of parenting and teaching processes is that of strengthening these areas so that our young people can take on life with an adequate base of these personal resources and assets. To comprehend the critical importance of this task, understand that young people who believe they are incapable and insignificant and that whatever happens is beyond their control tend to live life by default and reaction. They are generally exceptionally vulnerable sexually, chemically, socially, legally, and/or academically.

However, young people who strongly believe they are capable of initiating learning and change in their lives have significance, and that no matter what circumstances they encounter, they have the capacity within themselves to influence how they respond and live in the face of them usually live by intent and action and are therefore much less vulnerable.

It is possible to help people in the first category to progress to the second at any time in life, but the younger they are when they develop a strong base, the greater the lifelong benefits.

Many ideas to help children develop strength in the Significant Seven Perceptions and Skills can be found in the book, Raising Self Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World by H. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelsen.


I'd say when I was younger, up until age 25 or so, I lacked something in most of these skills. Yet, I'd consider myself successful and aware of these now as an adult with my own child. Far from perfect but I'd definitely consider myself generally successful and engaged in life, including my own improvement. I cannot identify any particular shift that has lead to this awareness except the birth of my son when I was 36! So this shift occured between age 25 and 35, gradually picking up speed as I approached motherhood. My guess is this may be the trajectory of many, not just myself. Any explanations for this shift in adulthood? Is it possible some of this is in our underlying attributes as individuals? Thanks! -Kirsten 

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