Originally posted on October 14, 2015, “Positively Reinforcing Negatives” challenges parents who protect their children from criticism and instead demand positive reinforcement that the kids have not earned.
Not everyone can win.
And that’s a good thing.
A few years ago, I was sitting in a meeting with a student and a parent.
The girl was in seventh grade.
Her mother was a teacher herself.
She looked over the essay her daughter had sworn to her she had received a strong mark on (because why wouldn’t a parent believe every little thing a child tells her). In reality, this girl earned a generous 44 on the paper that was littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes and was frankly could’ve been written about an entirely different topic it was so incoherent. Worse was that the kid didn’t produce an outline or rough draft, so she didn’t satisfy even the slightest requisite preparatory work for the assignment.
Thus, it would lead you to believe that everyone sitting around that table – the parent, her daughter, my middle school supervisor, and I – understood where this young lady faltered and what needed to impressed upon her in order to induce improvement, right?
Instead, as the vaunted educator next to me wrote down the explicit instructions I had given her child for two weeks in how to construct the essay, how to format the essay, and how to edit the essay, the kid sat there disinterestedly picking at her nails. The best, however, when the mother asked me why I did not write many positive comments on her daughter’s paper and how positive reinforcement in this case could have inspired the student to improve her work.
I remember smiling an absolutely disingenuous smirk, for I feared blurting out some of the obscenities that were smacking against my teeth just dying to come out. I wanted to tell this woman that that’s the problem with this new line of kids entering schools each year: Everyone’s so afraid to offer constructive criticism and even authentic grades that might be lower than the child and his/her family’s expectations.
But I didn’t. I simply nodded and proceeded to explain that indolence does not merit praise and that her child should be ashamed she put her name on something that was so carelessly constructed. Was I supposed to tell her she was the best student in the class when her mark was the lowest and she had done none of the required work necessary to do the assignment well.
And the esteemed educator retorts that her child thought she was handing in the rough draft this time, not the final draft. Her child still sits there indifferently slouched over in the chair, not making eye contact, not taking responsibility for her actions – just picking at her dark nail polish.
Oh, the rough draft that was due two weeks ago that never came in? The rough draft that she told me last week was at home, but would be in the next day, that rough draft?
The mother sat silently, realizing her precious, innocent, virtuous twelve year old had lied to her.
This isn’t a story about a kid coming from a rough socioeconomic background.
This isn’t a story about a kid being crippled with the responsibilities of caring and providing for her family at a young age.
This isn’t a story about a kid having a learning disability and not having the support at home and in school necessary to excel.
This is none of those things. This student had all of the support a kid her age could ever need, probably more since her school was a 150-kid K-12 progressive school with 12 children in her entire class.
This is a story about a student who had so many chances to improve her grades but instead simply slogged through barely passing middle school – if that – because her parents always elevated her to the top of the class when, in reality, she was near the bottom.
The result is a young adult who cannot handle adversity, who must operate only within idyllic and wholly unrealistic situations, who must be coddled, who must be excused, who must be lied to about his/her overall intelligence. And why? Because teachers are afraid of losing their jobs to bad reviews? Or because they lack the mettle to sincerely assess children? Or because parents are afraid of being parents? Or maybe it’s because they’re afraid to admit that their kid isn’t the smartest one in the room?
And ultimately, as always, the kids are the ones who suffer when their parents model such irresponsible behavior, fighting with teachers to save their kids from learning a lesson. They might not realize it now, but they will when they can’t articulate a complex, coherent point or when they get into real trouble that mommy and daddy can’t excuse away.
I don’t know what ever became of that young lady, but I’m sure not much if she remained in her apathetic malaise and her mother continued to excuse her for all of her academic shortcomings. In some cases, I guess, parents who I’m sure only want the best for kids become one of their greatest detriments. The truth is, you can’t insulate kids from failure because they need to know what to do when they themselves fail. And they will fail. It’s the only way we learn and grow.
In a world of good jobs where everyone gets a trophy and all reinforcement is positive, it’s unexpected when a company like Kia Motors takes a stand against participation trophies and, by extension, the shifting mentality of our country. There are winners and losers in this world as harsh as that sounds. but it’s the truth. If there weren’t, then winning wouldn’t mean anything.
Everyone would in fact be a loser. And I don’t know about you, but I’m in this life to come out on top, taking second to no one. Someone should tell our kids that instead of positively reinforcing participation over excellence. There is no substitute.