Monday, July 25, 2011

Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy

What I wanted to write about, though, was a disturbing article I read this weekend, which reminded me how much many adults hate children. Of course, it was published on the site of Family Circle, "Where Family Comes First."

The article, entitled "Not Every Kid Deserves a Prize", was remarkable for its meanspiritedness. The author, Karin Fuller, writes about the trophy her daughter was awarded, at the age of eight, for playing soccer:

She didn't deserve it. Nor did she want it. At 8 years old, she hated soccer. She hated the uncomfortable shin guards, the itchy socks, the boring black cleats.
She disliked practice and she passionately, fervently, detested the actual games. Still, for completing the season, the team wanted to give her a trophy. I couldn't understand why. In my mind, if you start something, you finish it. And that gets an "atta girl"—not a trophy.
I wonder if Fuller always finishes everything she starts. I certainly can't see any reason why anyone, adult or child, should stick with something she so passionately hates, for no reason other than having started it. (And whose idea was it to start her playing soccer in the first place, I wonder?) It's one thing to tell a kid that she has to go on taking care of the pet she begged for, because the pet needs care. But why stick with an activity that no one depends on, and that you're not contributing anything to? I doubt that her absence from the team, had she quit, would have hurt anybody. I also can't see why her daughter should have received an "atta girl," any more than a trophy, just for finishing something; by Fuller's standards, even that seems like a sop to her self-esteem.

But Fuller's got more nifty examples.
I recently overheard a waiting-room conversation between two mothers. One complained her son wasn't allowed on a field trip reserved "unfairly" for high-achievers. She admitted her son had made little effort to earn his spot, but in her eyes, it was unreasonable to reward some kids and not others. The second mother was upset because her son had received a failing grade for repeatedly falling asleep in class. "It's not fair," she said. "He turned in most of his homework assignments."

Let me see if I've got this right: Kids who don't try should get the same benefits as those who do? And completing most of the assignments should discount that sleeping-in-class thing? Are we so obsessed with fairness that we raise children to believe everyone should be treated the same, regardless of effort or skill?
Let me see if I've got this right. A kid who repeatedly falls asleep in class is nothing to get concerned about -- I suppose he's just doing it to annoy the teacher (and Karin Fuller), because he knows it teases. If he still does his homework, he isn't trying. As for that field trip, why is it reserved for high achievers? Why is it a reward, something reserved by definition for only a few students, instead of something the whole class participates in?
And it gets better:
My husband, Geoff, was a teen with a younger sister when his father remarried a woman with two boys. Both older boys were accustomed to always coming first, while the younger kids were used to baby-of-the-family privileges. But suddenly the roles—and rules—had changed. Cries of "Not fair!" became commonplace. One day Geoff's father sat down with all four kids and said essentially this: "On any given day, life isn't fair. That's the way it goes. We hope everything evens out in the long run. Live with it."
Rules, you see, aren't made by parents, but by "life," which is unfair. On any given day, anyway. Things will even out by themselves. Parents aren't responsible.

I see things differently. "Life" often isn't fair, but people should be; if they aren't, they're in the wrong. I don't mean to downplay the difficulty of being a parent, nor of building a new household out of two old ones, but Geoff's father was abdicating responsibility for his own actions. (Of course I'm relying here on Karin Fuller's probably self-serving second- or third-hand report, but that's the point: she's spinning it to suit her own prejudices.)

There may be some who disagree, believing there's no harm in giving trophies to all, that it's a harmless way to recognize kids' participation and encourage them to try. What they're failing to see is that by rewarding everyone, the trophy is devalued, or the certificate becomes nothing but a piece of nice paper with a pretty font. In our quest to make everyone equal and everything fair, no one is special. By bolstering self-esteem across the board, we're sending the message that self-esteem is more important than hard work and achievement. But ultimately, high self-esteem doesn't guarantee success. That takes self-discipline, self-reliance and self-control.
I disagree, because there are other ways of looking at this. I think there's harm in giving trophies to anyone, especially young children. Rewards discourage achievement, because they cause people to lose interest in doing whatever they are rewarded for. Alfie Kohn has shown this many times over the years, with plenty of studies that demonstrate it, but giving and getting rewards feels so good.

Consider the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, about a program which taught ballroom dancing to fifth-graders all over New York City, concluding in a city-wide competition with a humongous trophy as the prize. It got mostly positive reviews, in which the most popular recurring word seemed to be "adorable." A few reviewers, like Slate's David Edelstein, were wary of the competition element:

One reason I hate the fact that my just-7-year-old daughter watches American Idol (long story) is that I don't want her to think about competition yet. I don't want her to see people being judged—and in some cases, ripped apart. Yes, that sounds odd coming from a critic—but these are people who aren't rich and famous and in some cases are getting torn apart with a camera in their face. But up in Washington Heights in Mad Hot Ballroom, competition might be the only way out, and there are fewer illusions to be dashed.
But even Edelstein, in the end, dissolved into a puddle of Awwwww! And I agree, the kids are cute. But when I watched Mad Hot Ballroom, I noticed other things that weren't so cute. Several teachers, administrators, and dance instructors claimed that the program taught children to be "little ladies and gentlemen":

Over shots of the winning students, a teacher says that one of the girls was incorrigible and now, after a year of rehearsals, she has poise and self-control and doesn't get into trouble.
Well, winning helps, I suppose. But how long will that "poise and self-control" last? Will most of the kids even go on dancing after the program is over? Probably not: it's set up to make dancing stressful and coerced, as if the aim were to turn them off, not encourage them to continue. Mad Hot Ballroom isn't a controlled study, so I'm not faulting it for not telling us where the kids were five or ten years later. But I reserve the right to be skeptical.

None of the reviewers I've read noticed the school administrators, especially those in the school that had won the previous year's competition and had the trophy in their school. (You didn't think the kids would be allowed to take it home, did you?) They talk as though they, not the students, had won the competition, and semi-playfully talk about doing magic so the trophy will stay with them another year. Winning, even vicarious winning through one's students, doesn't seem to improve people's characters.

Losing's another matter. Another reviewer noticed that (in an instructors' meeting, thank goodness, not in front of the kids):
One of the instructors, however, blurts out something along the lines of "Second place is first loser!" Taking that another step, the program's leader reminds the instructors that, indeed, life is tough and competition is healthy.
Well, there you have it: there's only room at the top for one, and everybody else should get their noses ground in the dirt, because they're losers. I couldn't help wondering why, if learning to dance was so good for kids' social skills and corrigibility, the distraction of throwing in a high-stakes competition was added, to produce hundreds of bruised losers when nothing real was at stake except the principals' egotism. Far from being "healthy," competition purely for competition's sake makes no sense at all.

[P.S. Alfie Kohn points out that this kind of competition involves artificial scarcity. There's no inherent reason why there must be only one "winner"; the idea is to distract the competitors from the fact that they're fighting each other over a worthless piece of plastic and metal. In the real world, resources and goods often are genuinely scarce. But suppose that a family is short on food. Do the parents put the food on the floor and tell their kids to fight for it -- or compete with the kids themselves? (Well, maybe Karin Fuller would.) No. In the real world, when goods are scarce, you share them. One function of competition -- and maybe a conscious purpose at times -- is to teach children and adults that sharing is for losers. On the other hand, the good things connected to the teaching of ballroom dancing, such as social skills and the pleasure of dancing in itself, aren't scarce, so there's no reason to make the dancers compete unless you want a war of all against all. Which is a reminder that Hobbes's war of all against all is not, as he thought, the state of human beings in nature, it's a product of "civilization."]

Often enough competitiveness is sheer evil. While I was looking around on the web, trying to put off dealing with Fuller's article, I found another article by Alfie Kohn in which he documented parents who work actively to keep other people's kids out of the advanced classes that are reserved for their high-achieving offspring.

[F]rom Amherst, Massachusetts, where highly educated white parents have fought to preserve a tracking system that keeps virtually every child of color out of advanced classes, to Palo Alto, California, where a similarly elite constituency demands a return to a "skill and drill" math curriculum and fiercely opposes the more conceptual learning outlined in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards; from an affluent suburb of Buffalo, where parents of honors students quashed an attempt to replace letter grades with standards-based progress reports, to San Diego, where a program to provide underachieving students with support that will help them succeed in higher-level courses has run "head on into vigorous opposition from some of the community's more outspoken, influential members -- the predominantly white, middle-class parents of high-achieving students."

... They may be pro-choice and avid recyclers, with nothing good to say about the likes of Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh; yet on educational issues they are, perhaps unwittingly, making common cause with, and furthering the agenda of, the Far Right.

... This is essentially what happened in San Diego, where an attempt to give a leg up to lower-tracked students was, as Elizabeth Cohen of Stanford University puts it, "the kind of project that you'd think wouldn't bother upper-status parents at all. Wrong! They said, 'What are you going to do special for my kid?'" This posture, she adds, goes beyond a simple and commendable desire to do everything possible for one's own children. "When parents tell me they're terribly anxious about their kids getting ahead, I'm sympathetic. Everyone wants the best for their kids. But when it extends to sabotaging programs that are designed to help people, I have to draw the line."
Notice what is going on here. It isn't just that these parents are ignoring everyone else's children, focusing their efforts solely on giving their own children the most desirable education. Rather, they are in effect sacrificing other children to their own. It's not about success but victory, not about responding to a competitive environment but creating one. As Harvey Daniels of National Louis University sees it, "The psychology of those parents is that it's not enough for their kids to win: others must lose -- and they must lose conspicuously."
This is the sort of thing that casts doubt on Fuller's contention that "success ... takes self-discipline, self-reliance and self-control." It also helps to have access in the first place to resources that are necessary for advancement in a stratified society.

Incidentally, I recently read A Class Divided: Then and Now (1987) by William Peters, about Jane Elliott's famous "blue eyes - brown eyes" discrimination exercise in which children are divided into groups by the color of their eyes. Those in one group are given privileges and praised arbitrarily, while those in the other group are denied privileges and criticized arbitrarily -- on the first day. On the second day, they switch places. Originally Elliott did this with her third-grade students, though since then she's done it with older ones and, in modified forms, with adults.

I'd been hearing about this exercise for years, but Peters's book taught me something I hadn't heard before. After it was over, many of the students showed a decisive improvement in their school performance, which lasted for at least the rest of the school year; see pages 97-8 and 108-10. Oddly, no one seems to have followed up on this, though Elliott brought it to the attention of some educational psychologists. Her own theory (pp. 109-10):

"On the day they are in the 'superior' group and doing genuinely superior work ... they find out for the first time what their true potential is. They learn by actual experience that they can do much better work than they have been doing. Later, when the exercise is over and they continue to work at a higher level, they are simply responding to what they now know they can do.

"It's no longer news in educational circles that children tend to live up -- or down -- to the expectations of their teachers," she continues. "In this case, it's the children's expectations of themselves that have changed. Their new expectations are based not on hopes or wishes or even on what their teacher told them about their abilities, but on their own knowledge and experience. They don't just think they can do better work, they know they can, because they have."
Fuller concludes:
Ultimately, we aren't simply raising children—we're raising adults. And if we want them to become functioning members of society, they need to learn how to win and how to lose. They need to be able to take criticism, cope with arbitrary decisions and handle setbacks. They need to see that people who work hard to achieve—even if they fail at first—will be rewarded more than those who don't.

That's called real life. And it's fair.
It takes a certain amount of denial to pretend that the US (or any other society that I know of) is a meritocracy, in which those "who work hard to achieve ... will be rewarded more than those who don't." Are the masses of unemployed today simply people who didn't work hard? It might be true that those at the top of our society, who've devastated the economy so effectively, did work hard, but at what? Certainly nothing productive. "Fair"? No, far from it.