Kid Gloves: Part Deux

I slipped. The other night at team training, I told a gymnast of mine that what she attempted to do was “awesome.” It wasn’t. The form was not good, she was unfocused and the technique was , lets just say, needing a little attention. I was dismissive because I was watching 9 other girls at the same time, and she caught me.  She’s a very smart kid, just like every kid on my team. She looked at me, a disappointed expression on her face, “No it wasn’t. What do I need to do?”   And that about sums it up. Children don’t need hollow praise they need direction, they crave it, it’s what helps them develop. Not just as gymnasts, but as children growing into adults.

Often adults, like a coach with many gymnasts, throw praise (or sadly the opposite) because they are dismissing a child for a moment. I have heard other coaches give an athlete generic “constructive” criticism because they didn’t see the effort of the child, a “ya gotta say something” attitude. Usually I try to admit to a gymnast that “I didn’t see it, do it again.” Sometimes they’re frustrated but I gain credibility by being honest. Adults  have to remember that children need honest guidance, not dismissive praise. 

I remember talking with some friends about how my mom used to bust me for whatever it was I was doing wrong. I got spanked sometimes, and once when I told her to “shut up” I had my mouth slapped. I never thought that those things were so bad. In fact, I learned to never tell my mom to shut up again. My friends told me how they couldn’t believe I was abused like that. I didn’t feel abused. My mother was 2 generation American  Hungarian, she was tough and I towed the line because I was expected to. Conversely she also encouraged me to be able to explain myself and express my opinion, appropriately, (like a blog I guess). I remember thinking that my friends were more abused than I was. Some were given such loose reins that most of my collegiate memories of them are of stepping over them on the dormitory bathroom floor, where  they were drunk and loving it. Other friends were just misled, thinking that life was waiting for them to shape the world, since the world was theirs and only theirs. Those were the ones that were never criticized, Never made to tow the line. Never understanding that the world doesn’t spin around “just” them. 

Now I am not advocating slapping a child. In fact we have a no spanking policy at my house. But I do advocate telling a child like it is.  Can that be damaging to the self esteem? Doubtful. Seem controlling? Of course, but that’s my job. I don’t want my child going into life thinking that he will always get what he wants. He won’t. I don’t want him thinking he deserves something that he doesn’t. Realism, not hollow self-esteem building behavior that, I believe, is actually worse for a child.

I also believe that self-esteem is important to healthy development. Kids who hold themselves in poor stead are thought to be most vulnerable to trouble — from low academic achievement to drug abuse or crime.  I believe that my college buddies suffered from low self esteem because they never had boundaries. No one to snap them back into line and subsequently praise their good behavior. Thus they ended up embarrassing themselves on the 3rd floor bathroom of Trowbridge hall. For those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the stakes may even be higher and the needs even greater. But empty praise — the kind showered on many kids years ago in the name of self-esteem — did more harm than good then and still today is providing no benefit.

In reference to letting children have free reign, developmental psychologist Sandra Graham of UCLA says “Instead of boosting self-esteem, it can often lead a child to question their competence.”  But in the late 60’s through the mid 80’s raising self-esteem became a national concern, and educators thought it could help raise academic achievement. But schools got sidetracked into worrying more about feelings, says Charles Sykes in Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add. “Self-esteem has virtually become an official ideology,” he writes. Some schools also said grammar and spelling errors should be overlooked so students wouldn’t be discouraged from writing, It was to protect their self-esteem’ to the point where they would get praise for things that weren’t very good. And now we have a generation of young adults with horrible grammar, and spelling that’s even worse. (I be one of thoze). 

Today, thankfully, the tides have turned. Schools teach the basics to improve performance on standardized tests, and self-esteem programs have evolved from phony praise to deserved recognition for  jobs well-done. We are moving in the right direction.

Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University says he had “high hopes” for the benefits of boosting self-esteem when he began studying it more than 30 years ago. “There is not nearly as much benefit as we hoped,” he says. “It’s been one of the biggest disappointments of my career.” 

There is a benefit, at least to anyone going in to psychiatry, because when the reality sets in and criticism flows, studies show that college students are increasingly seeking counseling. Today’s college students can be compared to bubbles — on the surface they seem secure and happy, yet with the least adversity they burst. Is that what we want for the next generation; our children?

Neil Howe, co-author of Milliennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, urges colleges and employers to better understand this group, born in 1982 and later, who are in college or recently graduated. Howe believes “milliennials” are a very connected, team-oriented generation that could benefit society. But “One of the things  managers talk about is an incredible sense of entitlement for people who don’t deserve it. They’ll come in right out of college and don’t understand why they’re not getting promoted in three months.” Howe blames the attitude on society’s high expectations. “We’ve become a much more child-oriented society around milliennials,” he says. “Self-esteem for them meant you’re the focus of society’s attention.”

So it’s evident that hollow attempts at enhancing a child’s self esteem does them no constructive good. It actually is the exact opposite of  “what the doctor ordered.” Children need to have boundaries defined. They need to know when they do something right; and when they do, we should heap praise on them lavishly. When they do something wrong they need to know that it’s unacceptable, and what they need to do to fix it, or do it better. That’s learning. That’s raising a child. 

My mistake of hollow praise with my team gymnast the other night was a learning experience for me. I apologized and made the corrections she asked for. I guess we are never too old to learn when we step out of line.

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