Abby Lee Miller, who runs a dance studio in Pittsburgh, and stars in the hit TV show "Dance Moms" created a stir this week by saying, essentially, that too many parents coddle their children and always treat them like winners, even when they haven’t earned it. In doing so, she says, they fail to nurture their children’s characters, including their willingness to work hard and compete for real.
With "American Idol" returning to television next week, we'll be seeing a fresh crop of folks who actually believe they have talent when it is painfully obvious they do not. Wouldn't it have been better if someone had told them long before they dreamed about becoming famous recording artists? Isn't it possible that among them is a really good sculptor or poet or tennis player who wasted time and effort trying to sing?
As a practicing psychiatrist and a parent of two children, ages 9 and 13, I am firmly in agreement with Ms. Miller about the state of parenting in America.
When they were a little younger every child on my son’s and daughter’s soccer teams was given a ribbon.
It didn’t matter if they were on a team that never won a game.
It didn’t matter whether they never mastered any soccer skills at all.
They routinely came home from swim meets with fistfuls of ribbons—first place and second place, but even for fifth place, in a field of five. For the first few years my son played baseball, every boy in the town league got a trophy.
It was a dangerous charade, and I took the steps I could to try to counteract it. I wasn’t heavy-handed. I simply commented, occasionally, that a year or two down the road it would be only the first, second and third-place teams that would get trophies.
I would mention that the first-place ribbon from the swim meet was my favorite because it was “better” to get one for beating four other swimmers than for merely finishing the race.
Rewarding mediocrity—or worse—can deprive children of striving to be their best.
It can condition them to expect praise even when their work is average or less-than-average.
It can deprive them of the opportunity to learn—when the stakes are relatively low—that they can survive losses and come back next week or next season or by choosing a different field to compete on, altogether.
It can steal from them the opportunity to find the best in themselves—for real.
It can give them the clear message that they are frail of spirit and dependent on fiction to sustain false self-esteem.
See, since human beings have a God-given barometer of truth inside them, telling them they’ve won when they haven’t is actually dispiriting to them. Being a party to fakery is, in the end, more demoralizing than losing fair and square.
If a child intuits that praise is false, he or she will not be certain a parent’s love is true.
If a child knows that a victory is hollow, he or she can never know the joy of triumphing over adversity.
If a child senses that there is no such thing as excellence, that child can miss the inner calling to greatness that could be his or her birthright.
It has never been more important to honor real winners and comfort real losers and insist that the truth about our children be recognized by them and those around them. Because never before in history have there been so many ways our sons and
daughters can lie to themselves about who they are.
But the world is waiting to judge them, and certain realities will not be denied. All of us have real enemies to either defeat or be defeated by. We have real illnesses to either cure or be laid low by. We will always have real economic challenges to either come to grips with or run from.
Parents who want to pretend their kids never lose at anything are raising a generation of kids who don’t know what it takes to win. And that is stealing their best from them and stealing the best future from all of us.