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I had an interesting chat with my children this morning. It’s the school holidays and I decided to take them out for a cafe breakfast and catch up over hot chocolate. I asked them what the the best and worst parts of school have been. Both told me that the worst part is when they get things wrong. Both feel anxious at the prospect of not ‘getting it right’ and it got me thinking.
My generation of parents is so praise-driven – often to the point of absurdity. We are so afraid of the dreaded “low self-esteem” that we have become a generation of parents who praise mediocrity. They try to catch a ball, but miss and we shout “Great job!” The thing is, it wasn’t a great job. Sure, it was a good try, but great? Nope. Our kids get certificates for participation, they get medals for giving it a go. All lovely ideas, in theory, but in my mind, a sure-fire way to ensure our kids will never achieve their potential. If we tell them they are brilliant when they are average, will they ever aspire to true greatness? Will they even know they have it in them.
The school my children attend (an excellent school, which I am in no way knocking) has a policy where each child will receive a certificate at a school assembly during the year. I love that each child gets to experience what it feels like to be rewarded for hard work. What I don’t love? The kids know that each kid gets one. They know that they are not a true reflection of achievement. They also know that once they have received one, they won’t get another, no matter what they achieve subsequently. Because, it wouldn’t be fair if your child got two awards and my child got one, now would it?
The result? Apathy. The award loses it’s shine. The child loses any drive to achieve. This Communist everyone-gets-one award policy defeats its own purpose.
This generation of kids has no idea what it feels like to be singled out for achieving something spectacular. They have no peer role-models. Regardless of how hard they try, how well they do, they receive equal praise. No wonder they are needy and self-important. No wonder they fall to pieces when they get something wrong. We have brought them up to expect applause every time they take a breath.
When I was a kid I watched as, year after year, the same kids received awards at the school Valedictory Assembly. I stood on the sidelines and cheered as the same kids were chosen for sports teams I so badly wanted to be on. Did I feel like a failure? Sure, a little. Did it break me? Absolutely not. I worked my butt off, in the hope that it would be me on that stage next year, getting the trophy. I spent hours shooting hoops, all the while hoping I’d be the one on the team next season. My ‘failure’ didn’t create a low self-esteem. Quite the opposite, in fact. It drove me to want to be better. It taught me I needed to work harder to be a better version of myself. I learnt that I had the power to go out and pursue those goals.
Here’s the ending of my little story: I never was the sports superstar. In fact I never even made the team. Year after year, I tried my hardest and was rewarded with the task of handing out orange slices at half-time. I learnt that I wasn’t a sportsman (a valuable lesson and one that led me to know my limitations and concentrate on my strengths). At netball, I failed completely. Amazingly, I wasn’t crushed, I didn’t need therapy and I made a lot of friends. I also learnt that winning isn’t everything, joining in and giving it a go is fulfilling and fun. Most importantly, I learned that failure really ain’t that big a deal.
Did my parents run to the school board and demand that the star athlete sit out at next week’s game so that I could have a turn because that would be fair? Hell, no! Did they demand that I also get a trophy at the Valedictory Assembly because I tried hard and I deserved to be recognised? Laughable. I was praised for my effort by teachers and my parents, sure. I was guided towards goals just out of my reach and instilled with the belief that I had the potential to go for it. I worked my butt off to earn an award and when, at last I did receive one, it meant something.
This morning, chatting with my kids about their fear of failure, it dawned on me that I am a hypocrite. I criticise the school for over-praising our kids by awarding by roster, not achievement, yet there I am – cheering on the sidelines of their lives, greeting every minor step forward with disproportionate fanfare. And then I wonder why they are afraid to fail.
We discussed this and spoke about how the best athletes/scientists/actors/artists all must have failed countless times before they became brilliant at what they do. They animatedly agreed that if those people had given up when they failed the first time, they would never have become who they had. It was an amazing discussion and it opened my eyes and gave me real clarity.
My son, all of seven years old, had this to say: “Mum, we should have a different word for MISTAKE. When we make a mistake, we should change the word MISTAKE to the word OPPORTUNITY. Then, every time we make a mistake, it’s like a step to get better.”
My kids are so much wiser than I.