Monday, September 26, 2011

Are We Raising Our Kids To Be Wimps?

The other day I was listening to the local Christian radio station, which I normally really enjoy listening to. However, on this particular morning they brought up a bone of contention with me. They started talking about how a coach was being mean if he didn't give much playing time to kids who weren't very good.

The reason this irks me to such a great extent is that it's indicative of the problems that are permeating our culture. We are terrified to take any risk, and don't want anyone to ever have their feelings hurt. Every kid gets a trophy, every kid gets promoted to the next grade, every kid is a "terrific kid". We do this all in the name of building self-esteem, but are we really doing the opposite? Are we hurting our kids?

What happens if you tell your kid they're the best singer ever when they really can't carry a tune in a bucket? They go on American Idol auditions and get mocked by the whole country. What happens when we pass a kid all the way up through school with social promotion, and then the kid can't even read when he graduates high school?

On the flip side, what message are we sending to those kids who are excelling? When your efforts to be the best player on the field earn you just as much playing time as the kid who is only there because his parents are making him, who doesn't even try that hard, what message is it sending? It's telling the kid, "It really doesn't matter if you try hard or not, because your efforts aren't going to be rewarded."

I played sports as a kid, and I'll tell you right now, I've been on both sides. I was a pretty solid softball player, and it was rare that I was sitting on the bench. But, I was only a mediocre basketball player. In middle school, I rode the pine a good bit. You know what it taught me? It taught me that I needed to work hard if I wanted more playing time. I was a better player by the end of the season, because I had a coach who realized that the incentive to work hard is to only give the good players a lot of playing time.

I am not saying we shouldn't encourage kids! Heaven forbid that. An encouraging teacher, who believes in her students, even if the students aren't doing well yet, is a gift to a child. Encouragement does not mean giving everyone an A and hoping it will make them into a good student. It's about giving them the F when they deserve it, but encouraging them to do better next time.

When these kids get to the real world, they're going to expect unearned promotions, and a secure job no matter how little effort they put forth. On the other hand, if we continue to not recognize the achievers, I'm afraid they'll simply become mediocre. We already are seeing this attitude emerge as we hear our politicians demonizing those who are successful in life (the rich), and praising those who aren't being productive.

What do you think?


  1. I wasn't sure where you were going with this at the start, but agree with you by the end.

    Carol Dweck in her book Mindset and a chapter in Nurtureshock talk about the danger of praise. Praise that is unearned teaches the older child that the adults opinion should not be trusted. The younger child believes the praise. But with general praise, all ages end up with a fixed mindset.

    They believe they are made up of fixed traits. "I am not good at math" "I don't do sports" Their self worth is very brittle. Some have a very high opinion of themselves, but they are unwilling to try new things for fear of risking their self image. Failing at something is seen as a sign of failure.

    All great things were done after many failures and getting back up and attempting again. We learn from our tries. The growth mindset believes that we can improve on our abilities with deliberate practice. Our failures show us where we can improve.

    So praise that is unearned is bad. Praise that is specific is ok. Praise that guides the way to improvement is best.

    So don't say you are smart. Even if they are, that is describing this as a fixed trait. Maybe tell them you liked the way they swung at the ball as specific praise. But always tell them you like how much effort they put into this when they have put in that effort.

    It is effort, persistence, attention, curiosity, and care that leads to success...and to happiness. Praise that.

  2. Hey Peter, thanks for adding do this discussion. I agree that praise is a great thing, as long as 1) the praise is earned and 2) it's more the specific thing that was done well. Not just "you're smart" but, "You studied hard and you did well because of your efforts. Nice job." You said, "Our failures show us where we can improve." Excellent point. If we don't let our kids fail, they really won't improve.