Friday, March 05, 2010

"Kids These Days Have it So Easy"

You would think by now that, after centuries of repetition, the "Kids these days..." articles would have pretty much run their course. But no, it seems that there's always a curmudgeonly old man ready to grumble about how he used to have to walk ten miles to school through snow up to his chin, uphill... both ways. No exception here.

George Will is upset because in a school, somewhere in Massachusetts, grade level undisclosed, kids are "jumping rope without ropes because of a self-esteem obsession". And he similarly complains that "some children's soccer teams stopped counting goals", their locations and the ages of the kids again undisclosed. Every watch five-year-old kids play soccer? A swarm of little bodies following the ball, wherever it goes on the field. If that's the context for Will's complaint, I have to say, I'm not sure that there's a benefit to the kids in keeping score, because they haven't even learned the basics of the game. I can see how a school might feel the same way about jumping rope - have the kids learn to jump in rhythmic patterns first, and introduce the ropes later. I'm not sure what life lesson George Will thinks that clumsy kids will get out of "tripping on the jump rope" - most of them already know that they're clumsy, and many will eventually learn to jump rope at recess.

Will's essay evokes the whining of recent years from people upset that schools were eliminating dodgeball from gym class. Dodgeball, it seems, is full of life lessons, warmly remembered by those who used to plaster the smaller and slower kids in gym class. There's an easy solution, after all, to being picked on in dodgeball - have a growth spurt, because if you're six inches taller with thirty pounds more muscle, the... kids who in any other context would be called "bullies"... will find somebody else to target. But you know, in a nation that's as slim and fit as our own, why would we need to question an approach to childhood sport and exercise that could turn kids off of physical fitness and competition.

Part of the problem here is that Will is confusing three different things: steps that make kids enjoy sport more, particularly at an age when many lack the cognitive skills and coordination to perform competently, praising kids for actions that don't deserve praise, and working to raise self-esteem. It is quite possible, and quite sensible, to structure a gym class that is focused on developing good fitness habits. It's reasonable within that context to recognize that although some young kids are coordinated beyond their years, most are not and some inevitably lag. You can create a context that emphasizes exercise and fitness without either lavishing kids with unearned praise or giving two figs about "self-esteem", even if it's possible for somebody like Will to caricature your effort.

Will announces that "the theory that praise, self-esteem and accomplishment increase in tandem is false", as if it's a great wisdom he's sharing with an unsuspecting world. "Wow," we're supposed to gasp, "And here we were confused by the popular stereotypes of the reticent nerd and the popular and confident, but academically challenged jock." Seriously, I'm not sure what middle school or high school people like Will attended where that wasn't self-evident; or is it that their life experience is now too remote and they shun popular culture. But I do agree with the larger point that unearned praise, and more significantly a pattern of unearned praise, can be counter-productive. With that in mind:
"We put our children in high-pressure environments," Bronson and Merryman write, "seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments." But children excessively praised for their intelligence become risk-adverse in order to preserve their reputations. Instead, Bronson and Merryman say, praise effort ("I like how you keep trying"): It is a variable children can control.
George, I recognize that you are under significant pressure to turn out your columns on a regular basis, with word counts and deadlines to meet. But that's no excuse for slipshod thinking, or for the abject ignorance you display on subjects such as global warming. Given the magnitude of your errors while writing on that subject, it seems fair to say that it would have been responsible for you to retract some of your past claims and, further, to apologize. It is good that you're not so risk-averse that you won't take on new subjects, but when you misspell basic terms like "averse" you quickly reveal yourself as paraphrasing somebody else's work to meet a deadline, as that's a term people who follow these subjects pick up no later than their intro psych class. Do I sense... overconfidence?
The school day starts too early because that is convenient for parents and teachers.
Really? Or is it because school districts only want to invest in a single fleet of buses and drivers, and thus stagger start times for elementary, middle and high schools - with later start times for high schoolers meaning earlier start times for younger kids? You don't have an editor who is going to fact-check for you, George. You need to be accountable here. You also need to be consistent, if you truly believe that less sleep translates into more obesity, as earlier start times in the lower grades will take sleep away from younger kids.
What's the point of a "kids these days" essay, or a harangue against parents as giving their kids too much praise? Or perhaps it's not "too much", but is "the wrong kind" - praise directed at inherent attributes (that may not be particularly manifest) instead of effort. Will's piece is under the sensational headline, "How to Ruin a Child", but his conclusion is, "Twigs are not limitlessly bendable; trees will be what they will be." So was he just venting?

If you have children, as Will does, and you're at all present in their lives, you know that they're not created equal. Identical parenting techniques can have different results on different kids. Will's final sentence seems to acknowledge that. Every parent makes mistakes. If Will reflects on his own parenting I'm sure he'll find plenty of examples of times he praised his kids "the wrong way", or taught his children incrementally. The first time he played catch with his son, was he throwing fastballs? Or was he doing something analogous to the "jumping without a rope" thing - making slow, underhand lobs... perhaps even with a tennis ball or softball... while his child learned the basics of how to catch? Is that something he now regrets as being too focused on his child's self-esteem?

And seriously, for all of his concern about how kids these days are being "ruined", Will never got around to relating his headline to any deficiencies or character flaws of the upcoming generation of kids. Strangely, like so many ruined generations before them, I suspect they'll turn out okay.

No comments:

Post a Comment