Times have changed. Somewhere, somehow, in the last twenty-five years, it became “not okay” for kids to be corrected, taught, or discouraged. What is the “somewhere, somehow”? The hand wringers took over. We are now supposed to tell our kids that they are wonderful at everything. They can do no wrong. “Yes, sweetheart, you are a great singer. You can win any reality show you try out for. If they don’t want you, it’s not because you aren’t good, it’s because they don’t know what good is. No matter what, honey, you are right and wonderful.” And we are raising a nation of entitled, overly sensitive, spoiled brats. According to a 2012 article for the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, Generation X is defined as 1965 to 1984. I was born in 1977, which puts me close to the middle of Generation X. And my generation is turning out to be a generation of lousy parents.
Watch American Idol. Or the X Factor. Or any other show that is some kind of talent competition where the majority of the contestants are in their teens to early twenties. Now watch when they are told no. Or, in the case of Simon Cowell, that they are no good, they have no business singing, etc. Then watch the reaction. Many of these kids, had they had any honest feedback in their lives would not have tried out to begin with. However, they did try out and now have to face real feedback and criticism. And they can’t handle it. Now of course, each show is edited to show the most dramatic reactions from the potential contestants, but each one is a microcosm of a larger problem. These kids were never told that they didn’t have the talent to compete for this type of endeavor, and they can’t handle it when they are called on it. Everything from hysterical crying, lashing out at the judges, or attacking the cameraman is generally on display. Of course, this staggering display of maturity is cheered on by the viewer, so the contestants get their fifteen seconds of fame after all. And all it cost them was their dignity. Not that it seems to matter to them. But can you truly blame them if they were never taught any differently?
So what brought this on? Why am I complaining about this? Well, I’d like to share an example from my own life that made me decide that I am going to ensure that my kids are not any of these entitled crybabies. But it can be difficult when the hand wringers are the ones in charge.
My son is six years old. When he was four, my wife and I put him in Taekwondo. One of the reasons for this, besides the fact that I think that it is good for kids to know how to defend themselves, is I wanted my son to have some discipline. If he excels in Taekwondo (Dad bragging alert: he is a low brown belt at six years old!) then I believe that it will give him a leg up on being able to excel in other things. Tae Kwon Do teaches you self-control, self-defense, and respect for yourself as well as others. I cannot speak for all Dojangs, but the facility in which my son is currently learning does not reward the students for “showing up.” There are no participation trophies. From four years old, he is learning that to succeed, you have to do your best, and even then, sometimes you lose. Just like in life.
So this past spring, we registered him for T-Ball. I played T-ball in the mid-eighties when I was about his age. When I played, we used somewhat of a hard ball, there were four to six innings, there were three outs, and there were winners and losers. The league that I played in had four teams. And while every kid did get a trophy, not all trophies were created equal. The first place team received the largest trophy. The second place team received the second largest trophy and on down the line. And each trophy was labeled with how your team placed. One year, my team received a trophy so small you could practically fit it in your pocket. Yet we survived.
While I haven’t been living under a rock since I last played T-Ball in 1985, I was still a bit surprised at how much things changed since then. When I registered my son for T-Ball, I was told that all kids will play. So far so good, that’s how it was when I was a kid. The ball is a rag ball. Still OK, my brothers and sisters played later than me and that’s the kind of ball they used. I asked if regular baseball rules will be followed. I was just curious, because I remembered back to my childhood days where there were a couple tweaks here and there. They looked at me as if I had asked if the kids were going to play naked. There are no winners or losers, everyone participates. Hmm. There are no outs and no matter what the hit, good or bad, everyone goes to first base. WHAT? So then the “game” is just practice with a uniform, right?
Despite the fact that I was aware of this, nothing prepared me for that first practice. Call me old fashioned, but I think kids could have more fun when they learn the game the way it should be played. Teach the kids how to throw. Teach the kids how to catch. Teach the kids how to field and bat. When they do it wrong, you don’t have to berate them, but correct them and show them the way it should be done. Don’t continually tell them “great job, great throw, great whatever” when it’s not. I volunteered as a parent to help at that practice. I didn’t tell the kids great job no matter what you do. I was attempting to play catch with a five year old, which really is not as bad as it sounds. He “threw” the ball to me, and it bounced several dozen times before it almost got to me. So I showed him how to hold the ball. I showed him what to do with his arm when he was throwing. I showed him what to look at and aim for when he was throwing. And I showed him how to let the ball come out of his hand when he was throwing. You know what? The kid was able to handle it. He didn’t fall down in a fetal position and sob uncontrollably. You know what else? He followed my instructions and was able to throw the ball correctly!
I am a little harder on my son. We’ve been playing catch since he was big enough to hold a ball. So he knows how to throw. And he knows how to hit. At least as well as a six year old can do those things. So when he was being lazy with his throws and not using the correct arm motions during the practice, while the other coaches and parents were “good jobbing” him to death, I called him on it and reminded him of the proper way. That’s when a change in attitude among the coaches and other parents took place. I believe they figured that I was one of those dads trying to live vicariously through his son. Every time my son made any kind of movement, they all cheered wildly for him, looking at me the whole time. And they never asked me to help with another practice. Give me a break.
The games go like this: There are three innings. Each kid gets to bat. He or she goes to first base no matter what kind of hit it was or whether or not he or she was out. So what does this accomplish? It gives the kids who need work a false sense of accomplishment and it punishes the kids who maybe actually did hit a homerun. Keeping everyone on an even playing field is socialism at its best.
Baseball can be a wonderful metaphor for life. The best players fail seven out of ten times. No matter how good you are, there is always someone better and waiting to take your job. There is generally more losing than winning, just like in life. But when everyone is always told that they are doing fine and there are no consequences for not doing well, what does that teach? Life is not like that.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you will fail. It’s a fact of life. And you are not the best at everything. And you do not have specific talents. Most kids have natural talents in something or things. These things need to be nurtured and encouraged. I think my son has some natural talent involving running and he takes great pride in the fact that he is the fastest kid in his class. Unfortunately, he is discouraged in school from showing that off in case another kid gets his feelings hurt. That’s not OK. So when he is old enough, we will have him try out for the cross country team at school if he desires. Will he be the best? Maybe, but maybe not. And that’s OK. Kids can handle that. But if they are brought up their entire young life told that they are the best at whatever they try, they won’t be able to handle reality. They will be those kids flipping off the cameraman on American Idol.
So tell your kids when they are good at something. But be realistic at things they are not. Let them try everything, but don’t give them false hope. If the kid can’t sing, tell him to stop. But if he can play a saxophone or a piano, encourage that like there’s no tomorrow. But don’t tell him he can sing. It will save him some embarrassment and heartache later on when people who don’t care about his feelings tell him the truth. Sometimes feelings have to be hurt. But as a parent, you should know your kids and how to do it without discouraging them. Kids are more resilient than many people seem to want to give them credit for. Times have changed, and not for the better.