“I’m here a week now . . . waiting for a mission . . . getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker. And every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger.”
—Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin L. Willard in Apocalypse Now
When I was at Rice, my upperclassmen friends—particularly those with older siblings who had attended before them—would often talk about the “pussification of Rice.” I want to talk about the pussification of America.
The community center in Oxford, Massachusetts is now running no-scoring-everybody-wins youth basketball leagues. Now, while the article I link focuses on the 6 to 8 year old league, notice that the no-scoring leagues at the center include all the way up to age 12. This is a growing trend around the country. Ostensibly, the idea is to focus on fun, keeping everyone included and engaged, and to emphasize teaching game skills over winning. In themselves these are laudable goals, and I kind of understand it in the context of things like my daughter’s 4-5 year old soccer league at the local YMCA.
But really? Twelve-year-olds can’t keep score?
Underlying all of this, of course, is this idea that we have to shield kids from the emotional trauma of losing. After all, having winners and losers favors one set of players over another, and results in unequal outcomes, and we can’t have that. But it goes on.
The school board in Windham, New Hampshire has just voted 4-1 to ban dodgeball (and other “human target” games) from the district’s schools. Apparently some parents were complaining that bullies were targeting their kids during games.
Don’t worry about that mean old Jimmy, Son. We’ll talk to the school board and if they don’t ban dodgeball, we’ll file a lawsuit. That’ll teach ‘em.
Jeez. Rather than standing up to the alleged bullies, choosing not to play, or simply asking gym teachers to better monitor the games, we have to elevate this to the freaking school board and ban the age old PE staple altogether. All because little Johnny got his feelings hurt. What’s next? You know, in baseball we sometimes try to tag a runner—the practice used to be called “soaking,” where you basically had to pound the runner with the ball itself—to get an out. In kickball we actually throw the ball at runners. In football we try to knock the ballcarrier down. Tag is, well, tag. Ever seen the wall of players guarding their testicles in front of an indirect kick in soccer? All “human targets.” Are we going to ban those?
And we’re not confining our loving protection of these tender sensitivities to sports. Consider what we’re now seeing in academia.
I’ve previously reported on the growing trend of schools eliminating the concept of an F. More and more, schools are adopting policies setting a mandatory minimum grade of 70, regardless of the student’s actual performance. Grand Rapids Superintendent Bernard Taylor said that “If the choice is between letting kids fail and giving them another opportunity to succeed, I’m going to err on the side of opportunity.” In Texas we actually had to enact a statute to prevent some school districts from setting minimum grade threshholds, and had to defend it in court.
But it gets worse. Not only are we increasingly shielding kids from adverse consequences resulting from poor classroom performance, some schools are now taking measures to shield those poor performers from the stigma and disappointment caused by the achievements of their classmates. In Ipswich, Massachusetts, the local middle school has canceled “Honors Night,” a long-standing tradition in which high academic achievers are honored with a dinner, awards, and speakers. Although the school has denied the charge, claiming that it just moved the function from a separate awards night to including it in a larger daytime awards assembly, the explanatory letter Principal David Fabrizio sent to parents is telling:
“The honors night, which can be a great sense of pride for the recipients’ families, can also be devastating to a child who has worked extremely hard in a difficult class but who, despite growth, has not been able to maintain a high grade point average.”
In other words, to avoid hurting the feelings of those who don’t achieve as well, we’re going to take away (or diminish) a celebration for those who do.
Over and over I see this Spockian mentality that we must at all cost buffer kids’ fragile egos from every manner of negativity. No one ever loses. No one ever gets hit. No one ever gets picked on. No one ever fails. But rather than nurturing them, this is doing kids a tremendous disservice if not outright abusing them, because the real world isn’t that way.
There’s an old saying among gym rats (football players, boxers, Marines, etc.): pain is weakness leaving the body. The only way to get stronger is to condition yourself to absorb the punishment, and the only way to do that is . . . by absorbing the punishment. The real world is full of adversity. But if we shield our kids from every conceivable emotional bump and bruise, we deny them the opportunity to develop the necessary conditioning to deal with it. Instead they reach adulthood with a distorted worldview that can neither acknowledge nor cope with obstacles and unequal outcomes, because their whole life experience has taught them that these things do not exist.
How are they supposed to compete in the marketplace if they have never known a world with winners and losers?
How are they supposed to be able to handle a-holes and bullies if Mommy and Daddy have always taken up the fight for them?
How are they supposed to regroup and try again after a setback if they’ve never known a world with failure?
Am I suggesting that we need to be putting six-year-olds through two-a-days and sending them to personal trainers? Certainly not. But we have to stop coating our kids in bubblewrap. Give them the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from the consequences. Let them experience facing—and overcoming—adversity and failure. Push them to stand up for themselves. Only in this way can they develop the hardness and strength of spirit—the toughness—necessary to survive on their own.
As it stands, however, we’re raising generation upon generation addicted to Meow Mix.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This marks the 200th installment of Chasing Jefferson. When we started this adventure nearly two years ago, I had a list of 21 topics, and thought we’d be lucky to stretch that list out 6 months. Thanks to all of you who have stuck with me, sent me encouragement, and passed on links to friends.