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Opinion
 
Alfie Kohn

Do our kids get off too easy?

Published on May 5, 2014 5:45 PM
 
Researchers have shown that high self-esteem among children is beneficial, but that even more desirable is unconditional self-esteem: a solid core of belief in yourself, an abiding sense that you are competent and worthwhile - even when you fail or fall short. -- ST FILE PHOTO

THE conventional wisdom these days is that children come by everything too easily - stickers, praise, As, trophies. It's outrageous, we're told, that all children on the field may get a thanks-for-playing token, in contrast to the good old days, when recognition was reserved for the conquering heroes.

Children are said to be indulged and overcelebrated, spared from having to confront the full impact of their inadequacy. There are ringing declarations about the benefits of frustration and the need for grit.

These themes are sounded with numbing regularity, yet those who sound them often adopt a self-congratulatory tone, as if it took extraordinary gumption to say pretty much what everyone else is saying. Indeed, this fundamentally conservative stance on children and parenting has become common even for people who are liberal on other issues.

But seriously, has any child who received a trinket after losing a contest walked away believing that he (or his team) won - or that achievement doesn't matter? Giving trophies to all the children is a well-meaning and mostly innocuous attempt to appreciate everyone's effort.

Even so, I'm not really making a case for doing so, because it distracts us from rethinking competition itself and the belief that people can succeed only if others fail.

Rather, my intent is to probe the underlying cluster of mostly undefended beliefs about what life is like (awful), what teaches resilience (experiences with failure), what motivates people to excel (rewards) and what produces excellence (competition).

Most of all, it's assumed that the best way to get children ready for the miserable "real world" that awaits them is to make sure they have plenty of miserable experiences while they're young. Conversely, if they're spared any unhappiness, they'll be ill-prepared.

This is precisely the logic employed not so long ago to frame bullying as a rite of passage that children were expected to deal with on their own, without help from "overprotective" adults.

In any case, no one ever explains the mechanism by which the silence of a long drive home without a trophy is supposed to teach resilience. Nor are we told whether there's any support for this theory of inoculation by immersion.

Studies of those who attended the sort of non-traditional schools that afford an unusual amount of autonomy and nurturing suggest that the great majority seemed capable of navigating the transition to traditional colleges and workplaces.

But when you point out the absence of logic or evidence, it soon becomes clear that trophy rage is less about prediction - what will happen to children later - than ideology: how they ought to be treated now. Fury over the possibility that children will get off too easy or feel too good about themselves seems to rest on three underlying values.

The first is deprivation: Children shouldn't be spared struggle and sacrifice, regardless of the effects.

The second value is scarcity: the belief that excellence, by definition, is something that not everyone can attain. No matter how well a group of students perform, only a few should get As. Otherwise we're sanctioning "grade inflation" and mediocrity. To have high standards, there must always be losers.

But it's the third conviction that really ties everything together: an endorsement of conditionality. Children ought never to receive something desirable - a sum of money, a trophy, a commendation - unless they've done enough to merit it. They shouldn't even be allowed to feel good about themselves without being able to point to tangible accomplishments. In this view, we have a moral obligation to reward the deserving and, equally important, make sure the undeserving go conspicuously unrewarded. Hence the anger over participation trophies. The losers mustn't receive something that even looks like a reward.

A commitment to conditionality lives at the intersection of economics and theology. It's where lectures about the law of the marketplace meet sermons about what we must do to earn our way into heaven. Here, almost every human interaction, even among family members, is regarded as a kind of transaction.

Interestingly, no research that I know of has ever shown that unconditionality is harmful in terms of future achievement, psychological health or anything else. In fact, studies generally show exactly the opposite.

One of the most destructive ways to raise a child is with "conditional regard". Over the last decade or so, Israeli researchers Avi Assor and Guy Roth, and their colleagues in the United States and Belgium, have conducted a series of experiments whose consistent finding is that when children feel their parents' affection varies depending on the extent to which they are well behaved, self-controlled or impressive at school or sports, this promotes "the development of a fragile, contingent and unstable sense of self".

Other researchers, meanwhile, have shown that high self-esteem is beneficial, but that even more desirable is unconditional self-esteem: a solid core of belief in yourself, an abiding sense that you're competent and worthwhile - even when you screw up or fall short.

In other words, the very unconditionality that seems to fuel attacks on participation trophies and the whole "self-esteem movement" turns out to be a defining feature of psychological health. It's precisely what we should be helping our children to acquire.

NEW YORK TIMES

The writer is the author of The Myth Of The Spoiled Child: Challenging The Conventional Wisdom About Children And Parenting, from which this article was adapted.