This morning, as I was making my way through my email, I caught a short news item in Academica Top Ten about a school in Calgary discontinuing awards and competitions based on the work of Alfie Kohn, an author who writes about child behaviour and parenting. The theory is that, “awards eventually lose their lustre to students who get them while often hurting the self esteem and pride of those who don’t get a certificate.” In essence, if I understand the idea correctly, when someone excels, rewarding them makes them complacent, and if they fail to excel, they suffer loss of self-esteem and pride; therefore, competition shouldn’t take place at all.
With all due respect, that’s total crap, in my opinion.
As usual, George Carlin said it best:
Now, all of this stupid nonsense that children have been so crippled by has grown out of something called the “self-esteem movement.” The self-esteem movement began around 1970, and I’m happy to say it has been a complete failure. Studies have repeatedly shown that having high self-esteem does not improve grades, does not improve career achievement, it does not even lower the use of alcohol, and most certainly does not reduce the incidence of violence of any sort, because as it turns out, extremely aggressive, violent people think very highly of themselves. Imagine that; sociopaths have high self-esteem. Who’da thunk? – From “Life is Worth Losing” (2006)
The self-esteem movement has led to such ridiculous acts as not having winners or losers in games – everyone is special! The problem arises once we realize that if everyone is special, then nobody is. To me, that sounds like a psychological theory created by wimpy scientists that always lost at sports and secretly harbored a grudge for many years until they could start influencing educational policy. Admittedly, this is somewhat of a generalization; I apologize to any athletic scientists out there (all three of you).
What bothers me about the self-esteem movement comes down to two key things: I have learned more from my failures than my successes; and some people are better at some things than others – that’s the nature of humanity.
The reason my Dad was an absolutely brilliant parent (whether he actually knew it or not) was that when the time came to give me advice, he shared his own experiences with me, then gave me the freedom to make whatever decision I felt was right. He trusted me enough that he knew I’d make the right decision, or if I didn’t, that I’d learn from having made the wrong one. It was the freedom to decide, and in truth, the freedom to fail, that made his guidance so valuable. Honestly, I’ve screwed up more times than I care to admit, including one massive failure in the field of marriage; even that experience has value if I manage to walk away having learned from the experience and changed my behaviour to adapt and try to prevent the same mistake from happening again. I certainly don’t rule out getting married again, I just won’t go about it in the same way. I learned, and at the risk of using a sickening cliche: I grew.
Of course, failure in this context isn’t the same as failure in sports, so let me use another example: I started running just over a year ago, and during that time, I’ve run several races – mostly 5K, but I have one 10K under my belt as well, and I consider that to be my maximum racing distance. Just my personal choice. I don’t enter these races with any expectation of winning – I generally finish about halfway through the pack for my age group, and I do keep track of my time for some races, with an eye to improving and getting faster as I do more of them. There are clearly winners of these races, and there are the rest of us who do not and will never win, but that doesn’t take away from my enjoyment and pride at having participated. Realistically, I am competing with myself – striving for personal best. This is the first time in my life that I have undertaken athletic activity in any sustained way, with the exception of doing some fencing a few years ago (which I also thoroughly enjoyed and failed to excel at), as during my childhood I was incredibly uncoordinated and generally somewhat overweight, so any such endeavor was doomed to fail. However, despite the lack of a `Mr. Congeniality` medal at the end of the soccer game or whatever, I survived and became a (somewhat) functional adult. In fact, I think I benefited more from losing that I would have from winning.
Losing with grace is sometimes more difficult than winning with it. What it does is it teaches perspective, and teaches you that yes, there are people better than you at certain things, and that`s not unexpected given that little thing we call evolution. Human beings come in many varieties, and some would be better adapted to chasing down a gazelle than others; when that was the means of survival, the ones who couldn`t were less likely to procreate. Now, however, there are a greater number of options as to how you win bread or bring home bacon or what have you – those people who kick the hell out of the ball may not be those who are good at manufacturing or selling said balls, or speculating on how many balls will get kicked; that`s the skill and talent the rest of us have, and some people can be scary good at all of these. Losing is learning about yourself and how you relate to the world; in that way, `losing`is in no way the same as `failing` – losing is not crossing the finish line first, but failing is not taking that experience and making it into a positive learning experience.
the difficulty that arises when someone is literally unable to fail because they are cocooned in a bubble wrap of `self-esteem`is that they don`t learn the coping skills necessary to make loss meaningful, because they don`t experience it. The child who is unable to lose becomes an adolescent and an adult who is baffled by the fact that they cannot realistically expect to be rewarded for everything they do – and yet they do expect it. I have been fortunate not to experience it myself, but I have friends who teach in post-secondary education who constantly encounter students with huge egos and unbelievable feelings of entitlement – self-esteem has, for these individuals, whooshed right past `confidence`and careened madly into `arrogance`. In the same way I can`t ask someone to hand me a zarf if they have no idea what it is, they are unable to recognize the true value of failing and trying again because they`ve never had to.
A zarf. Don`t say I never learned you nothin`.
Eliminating the possibility of losing also takes away the ability to potentially excel, and both of these are critical in the development of a real, whole, genuine and might I add empathetic individual adult. We have been far too focused on not making kids sad and not nearly focused enough to see the long-term effects of character building experiences on the adults they eventually become. We take away the ability to stand out, and we actively deny the process that in the broadest sense makes us human in the first place.
Anyway, I`ve never been a parent, and the odds against my becoming one grow greater every day, so I can only speak from my own experience and knowledge – which makes me a lot more like my Dad than I ever realized, now that I think about it.
And that`s rather awesome, actually. Thanks, Dad, for letting me make mistakes. I think I`m better for it.