Monday, April 16, 2012

Don't Dumb Down Your Kids!

You can call it evening the playing field, or making it fair to everyone, or even giving each person a chance, but I call it the blatant dumbing down of our own children, which in turn creates a future lackluster society.  No expectation of excellence or recognition for those who surpass the masses.  No healthy competition or exertion of energy or time to stand out among the crowd.  No use of creativity to break away from the pack.  Just a standard one size fits all approach where kids are rewarded just for showing up.  Today's popular parenting approach of indulging our children with every want and whim they have, without an expectation on the child, in order to keep them happy, is a recipe for disaster.

Do you remember the first time you didn’t get something you wanted that you had tried really hard to get?  For me, it was not making the volleyball team in 7th grade.  

Don't Dumb Down Your Kids - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
Up until then, I had always worked hard for everything I wanted:  a place in the school talent show, where I practiced and practiced and practiced my song until I knew I couldn’t do any better;   a solo in the kids choir at church, where I tediously reviewed my music at home after choir practice each night; a part in the high school musical when I was only in third grade, where I stayed after school each day and practiced with my music teacher to prepare for the audition.  

Before trying out for the volleyball team in 7th grade, I made no special preparations.  I’m not particularly athletically inclined, and at the time I was chunky and not real stable on my feet.  I hadn’t played a lot of volleyball and didn’t think of myself of as a particularly great bumper, nor could I jump higher than to allow a piece of paper to be slid under my feet.  I didn’t know how to spike or set, and to top it off, I missed the three day volleyball clinic offered to all the incoming 7th graders before tryouts, as my family was in Mexico for vacation.  

I still tried out, though, as all my friends were trying out I wanted to do what they did.  Most of my girl friends were sporty girls with a propensity for any game involving a ball.  Everything I know about any sport came from my girl friends growing up, as my parents never had an interest in teaching us about sports or playing them.  The tryout was hard, as I could tell I wasn’t at the same skill level as many of the other girls.  I worked hard, though, and improved during every drill.  During the scrimmage portion of the tryout, I got the volleyball bug and realized I really wanted to play volleyball because it was fun, not just because my friends did it.  I thought surely the coach would be able to see my want to succeed and my future potential.  I went home that day after practice proud of myself for my subtle improvements and full of anticipation for the posting of the new 7th grade volleyball team the next day.

We didn’t find out if we made the team or not until the end of the school day and the anticipation was unbearable.  When the list was finally posted, I waited patiently for my turn up front, watching other girls shriek with excitement and jump up and down as they viewed their name on the list.  They called out other girls’ names that were waiting at the back of the line to see the list to give them a heads up that they made the team too, and hugs and high fives ensued.  I didn’t get a call out from any of the other girls and by the time I got to the front of the line, I knew with certainty that my name was not on that list, yet I held it together for the off-chance that I would be surprised when I miraculously saw my name.

I was one of only five girls that didn’t make the volleyball team that year.  I remember bursting into tears and thinking that my life was over.  Not only was I embarrassed standing there crying in a huddle with the other four girls that didn’t make the team, in front of the excited new 7th grade girls volleyball team, but my pride was hurt, as I’d never experienced being formally turned down before.  Of course I remember being one of the last ones always picked on the kickball teams in grade school and not being asked over to a friend’s house after school in lieu of a new playmate, but that type of stuff, I learned from my parents, was just part of the growing up process…natural selection if you will.  As I matured, they helped me develop a habit of just not focusing on those things that weren’t a priority for me, like being the best kickball player, and instead focusing on those things that were….singing or acting or being a good friend.  But this, this public humiliation of having my name formally excluded from THE LIST, this was absolute heartbreak.

I cried, pouted, and complained about my luck.   My family consoled me, but my parents refused to fall prey to my pre-teen demands of them joining me in my pity party about how unfair it was.  They simply suggested that if I worked on improving my volleyball skills this year, I could probably make the team the next year.  I thought it was a load of bologna and thought it was a highly unsensitive remark to make.  After a few days, though, I started to think they might have a point.  I actually did like volleyball and I was just as upset about not being able to participate in something fun as I was about being humiliated.  So I went to the coach and asked her how I could get better so I could make the team next year. She suggested practicing bumping and setting at home on my own or with friends, gave me the names of volleyball camps in the area, and then offered me the position of team manager.  I’m a sucker for a title, so I accepted the ”job” immediately and started working with the team by setting up the nets for practice each day after school, filling water coolers, shagging balls during drills, and collecting sweaty towels after practice.  By attending every practice, I got to see what type of drills the girls were doing, and what the level of expectation was for skill.  I went to every game, both at home and away, and backed up the team, took stats, and performed my job, all the while seeing how those drills and practices panned out in a game setting.

I gave up three months of after-school hours to devote to being the team manager.   I practiced at home in the front yard by myself bumping and setting a volleyball.  I taught my sister, three years my junior, the basic bump and set, and since she was super athletic already as a kid, we started practicing together.  My friends on the team practiced with me whenever they had free time and the coach would let me fill in if they were short people for a drill.  I went to a volleyball camp over the summer and improved on my skills.  My reward was nowhere immediate, as it took an entire year of practicing and give and take to improve.

In the fall of next year, I was the first in line for the volleyball clinic offered before tryouts for the 8th grade team.  I gave it my all and my skills had improved enough to make the team.  I was still on the low end of the volleyball talent pool.  I sat on the bench a lot and I was nowhere near a star player.  But the point was to make the team to do something I enjoyed.  The point was to follow through on something I wanted and make an effort to change the outcome next time confronted with the same situation.  The point was to be a part of a team that was just as proud of me as I was of myself for all of my hard work.  The point is that 27 years later, I still play volleyball and have played on some sort of team, whether it be high school sports or social leagues, almost every year since 8th grade and I love it!  The point is that had I not been cut from the team in 7th grade, had I not dealt with the reality that my skill level was not up to par with the rest of the girls, I may never have learned the tenacity required to actively participate in that little thing called life.  The world is competitive.  It always has been, and always will be, whether we teach our kids to compete or not.

There’s this huge trend right now of letting our kids think that they should get everything they want, just because they want it, without having to exert any energy or sometimes without seeing the reality of the situation.  This philosophy permeates the parent pick-up line at school, where moms complain that the grade school talent show isn't fair and really shouldn’t really be a show in which you have to prove an actual talent, but more a variety show, so that all the kids could be part of it and demonstrate whatever they want to share, without anyone having to ever be disappointed in not getting in.  This philosophy bred the banning of teachers grading student papers in red ink or marker in some schools, so as not to make the students feel bad.  This attitude accounts for equal playing time on some school sports teams for kids of all skill level during school-to-school competitions so each child feels worthy. 

Basically this movement provides for us as parents and teachers, to reward our kids just for showing up, without ever having to experience the blood, sweat and tears of effort or the disappointment of failure.  Do you know that our school district rewarded our kids one year with a ticket to Six Flags just for showing up to school on the first day of school, since the no show percentage for the first day of school was traditionally so high?  That free ticket actually comes with a hefty price:  it condones our kids thinking that they should be rewarded for doing just the bare minimum.  

It teaches them to feel entitled.  It creates a cesspool of mediocrity for the generations to come, who feel it their natural-born right to be given an education, handed a job, and passed a pile of money, all while skating by meeting bare minimum standards.   

“They should all be given a part since they had the courage to try out,” one parent suggested about the school play.   

While that proposed scenario may represent a small moment in time today, tomorrow it will morph into your child expecting an A in English Lit just for reading the book and the next day feeling entitled to a BMW just for graduating from college with a C average.

I am not suggesting that everyone strive for above average or excellence in academics, talents, or anything else.  I am simply signifying that you teach your kids to decipher between their best effort put forth and not having fully utilized one’s own potential.  In other words, let’s deal with reality.  If your kid didn’t make the team, don’t automatically appeal to the coach for further review.  Instead use the event as a learning experience, as a time to address disappointment and failure and build self-esteem instead of hinder it.  The most defining moments in my life are not the ones where I achieved the most success, but instead those where I didn’t reach my goal:  not making the volleyball team, losing my college scholarship, not getting chosen for a job, being unable to carry a pregnancy to term.  The list goes on and on.  In retrospect, they were all experiences that seemed unbearable at the time, but in fact, helped me recognize my weaknesses, embrace my humility, and allowed me to become a better person by working through the situation.

I have my parents to thank for these viewpoints, as had they not forced me to deal with reality at an early age, I would not be so comfortable in my own skin today.  They expected me to take responsibility for my own actions, always try my best, and always treat others with respect.  When I faced disappointment, they were there to listen and console me, but they were also present to help me dissect the event and build a game plan as to how to avoid heartbreak in the future, whether it be letting go of that particular priority or working on myself to better prepare.  They also impressed on me that sometimes things just don’t work out!  Get over it and move on.  They didn’t candy coat situations and tell me that I was just as talented, or even more talented than the next kid, if I wasn’t.  If I showed an interest in a subject or an activity or an art, they expected me to learn about it on my own…they would not do it for me.  If I chose to do a half-ass job on a project, they taught me to expect half-ass results.  To get ahead, they told me to work harder, no questions asked.  That taught me to compete.

There is something to be said for just showing up.  Sometimes you get things by default by being the only one that shows up.  You get a partial college scholarship because no one else applied.  You get an entry-level job because you were the only applicant and the HR Manager didn’t have time to wait for more applicants.  You got the guy because you happened to be standing there and he turned to you when his true love dumped him.  All of this is called chance.  Life if full of it and it keeps us bewildered at the amazing turns we’re offered in life. 

The majority of opportunities we’re offered in this world, however, revolve around competition.  Set your children up for success.  Tell them the truth.  Be their parent and not their friend.  Don’t make them feel better, make them understand how to be better.  Teach them how to stay in the game, show them how to beat their opponent, and most importantly, help them understand that what they learn during the game is just as important as who wins the competition.