I started seeing it the first season I coached rec soccer.
We had a particularly disruptive player on the team, so the assistant coaches and I asked for a parent's help, hoping he'd encourage his son to be more of a team player. Instead of offering support, the father started yelling at me. His son apparently told him I'd sworn at him, and even though the two assistants testified that was patently false, it made no difference. There was no way to convince him that the coaches might be the good guys and the child might be behaving badly. He just kept repeating, “My son doesn’t lie.”
Coaching travel soccer? That’s even more extreme. There are very few post-40 endeavors for which I haven’t been prepared, but coaching a travel soccer team is certainly one of them. Some parents simply fail to appreciate the concept that, at that level, playing time is earned.
Generally ascribing to the notion that there’s always someone worse off than me, as I pondered my self-inflicted fate, it hit me like a ton of bricks. If I’m facing this phenomenon with 16 boys on a part-time soccer team, imagine what it must be like to be a teacher!
And since I found this phenomenon so fascinating, I’ve spent the last two months talking to 30 principals, teachers, administrators, counselors and education consultants from the elementary to the high school level in a variety of Patchland school districts.
With the exception of the elementary-school folks, they all said the same thing. This parent-driven, childhood-entitlement mentality is worse than it’s ever been. One counselor told me that over the past two years, “The number and tone of these ‘my child is never wrong’ conflagrations has gotten exponentially worse.”
One middle school principal said it’s gotten to the point where he dreads making the required disciplinary phone calls. He described a loin-girding warm up consisting of deep breaths and the mental preparation necessary to fend off the impending onslaught which often includes four-letter-word-laced tirades.
And after they hang up on him, they immediately go over his head to the superintendent. I’m starting to think we don’t pay our principals nearly enough.
Then I asked another counselor for her thoughts on handling parents who refuse to support the school in any way. She said she lays out clearly written expectations, sticks to the pre-prescribed consequences, tries to keep the lines of communication open, and approaches these tenuous situations as unemotionally as possible.
And what does she get for her efforts? Irate parents who insist upon being assigned a new caseworker, go over her head to the dean and then the principal, and when that fails, threaten a lawsuit.
Apparently, we don’t pay our guidance counselors nearly enough, either.
Then I made the mistake of asking a middle school teacher what parent/teacher conferences were like. She told me they’re taught to put a positive spin on everything. Even if a student is so disrespectful that a 1960s nun would have beaten them with a yardstick, they try to lead with something positive. Only then do they make an attempt to address the real issues.
This absurd “everything must be positive” mentality can be traced back to that '70s self-esteem movement that started in California and, like a modern-day plague, rapidly engulfed the entire nation. It culminated in that state’s legislature actually forming a formal task force to promote self-esteem in schools.
But what those addle-brained politicians who bought into this collective delusion failed to see is, while external sources can certainly affect self-esteem, self-esteem can never come from an external source. Even the most difficult child implicitly understands that acclaim without strings attached is generally worthless.
To get a better handle on this dynamic, I turned to a retired teacher, program administrator and current education consultant. She agreed that children do, indeed, immediately recognize false praise and, if it becomes chronic, it has two long-term effects.
The first, as it is with any effort to fill an inner void with a surface balm, creates a hyperactive need for even more praise. It becomes like any other addiction which will get to the point where the child can no longer deal with frustration of any kind.
The second adverse effect is this false praise instills a paralyzing fear of success. Because these children know they’ve have done nothing to earn it, they begin to fear that any future move will ultimately disappoint their parents and teachers, so they get C's and D's which leads to more “go get ‘em” praise, and then more C's and D's.
Then the parents, so terrified of someone toppling the house of cards they’ve so carefully built, become enablers by doing anything to protect that illusion. But as it is with all mirages, they eventually fade in the light of harsh reality.
Our first counselor also told me elementary and middle schools are geared toward student success. In fact, she said “everyone makes the honor roll in middle school.” But when they get to high school, for the first time in their academic lives, the process is geared toward real-world success.
So when these kids hit that difficult freshman year and their grades tank, the school gets frantic calls from parents who “can’t understand why their child is getting C's and D's, because they’ve never gotten those grades before.”
Even worse, she described a scenario where students who’ve heard nothing but praise their entire lives suddenly have the truth slap them in the face in the form of those senior-year college-aptitude test scores.
And when their parents can no longer protect them from the realization that they won’t be getting into that high-end college and a medical career is no longer a possibility “they fall into a deep and disturbing depression.”
I’m not saying we need to hammer our children from Day One, but the only way parents and schools can prepare them for the day that reality inevitably dawns is by providing a more reasonable and honest ongoing assessment of their skills and effort.
Because if we don’t, then we truly are “damning them with faint praise.”