Tag Archives: cognitive development

When Everybody’s/Nobody’s Special: The Problem of Self-Esteem

“Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.” — George S. Patton, in speech to US Third Army prior to the Normandy invasion (1944)

The history of America is a series of struggles—struggles that had winners and losers.

Colonial expansion, and the subsequent expansion of the West, did happen at the expense of Native Americans.  The Civil War, while fought valiantly on both sides, had a winner.  The North still won today: take a look at the population of the “New South”, if you don’t believe me.  Urban “renewal”, or the idealistic recomposition of American cities in the postwar years, came at the expense of the very poor, mostly African-American and Hispanic minorities, which were pawned into housing developments that became urban war zones.

Yet there are those that still insist on children not suffering through loss or failure—because it “makes them feel bad.”

Little league without scores.  Jumping rope without ropes.  Classes without grades or ranks.  A world where everything is wrapped in squishy Nerf ball material and no one’s feelings are hurt. 

A perfect society—perfectly mediocre.

Self-esteem has been the buzzword du jour in child development for decades.  Maintaining a child’s self-esteem, it is believed, will give that child the confidence to succeed in all their endeavors.  This is, for the most part, true: much of human capacity is based on our emotional center.  If we identify ourselves as successful, chances are good that it will be so. 

Some, like Donald Trump, even overcompensate in this area in order to achieve a modicum of success.  It generates results, even though the protagonist is downright insufferable.

Yet many educators have taken this to mean self-esteem AT ALL COSTS.  Today’s overprotective society requires children to dress in hockey pads and a mask in order to play outside.  Playing with other children requires pre-appointed “play dates” with pre-selected children deemed most suitable to the child’s temperament. 

Most insidious of all, no one is allowed to win.  If there are no winners, then there are no losers, no second place, and especially no failures.   We all feel special, we all feel valued…hooray, hand me the mango square and soy milk box, Mommy.

Yet there is too much of a good thing.  Emotions, like commodities, operate on supply and demand.  If everyone feels special, it’s not that important to be special.

George Will noticed this in a recent Washington Post column.  He cites the recent book NutureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which upends longstanding myths about self-esteem.  He states that:

“…the theory that praise, self-esteem and accomplishment increase in tandem is false. Children incessantly praised for their intelligence (often by parents who are really praising themselves) often underrate the importance of effort. Children who open their lunchboxes and find mothers’ handwritten notes telling them how amazingly bright they are tend to falter when they encounter academic difficulties.”

Bronson and Merryman state that overpraised children are more often prone to cheating since they haven’t dealt with failure in a constructive way.  “We put our children in high-pressure environments,” they write, “seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments.”  To keep that status and reputation, many children seek the easiest and most painless path to maintain their status quo, avoiding challenging, yet rewarding, opportunities.

We see this all too often in real life, such as the kid who “coasts” through the standardized tests knowing that this is the only arbiter for graduation.  There’s also the teenage genius who figures to take the easiest classes in order to maintain an artificially high grade point average.  Or the timid weenie who insists on using pennies at poker night instead of dumping a yuppie food stamp in the kitty.

If this weren’t reason enough to give up the coodle crutch, then think of the species.  If my Darwin is correct—and it may be rusty from hanging out with cuckoo creationists—then human beings are the only animals where the “less fit” are not only allowed to survive, but thrive. 

How is mankind going to fend off aliens, future superanimals, or an attack of killer dolphins if we’re all beating around the tetherball with kneepads and safety helmets, making sure no one skins their knee?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some freak eugenicist.  There’s no need to breed a superhuman with a 200+ IQ, the strength of Hercules, a mean fast break and the ability to win a land war in Asia (something today’s homo sapiens can’t seem to figure out). 

I’m simply suggesting that praise, while an important part of a child’s emotional development, can be destructive if overdone.  We can learn a lot from praise and encouragement, but it is meaningless if done without effort, sacrifice, and especially the occasional failure.

Teachers, moms, dads, principals: let the kids fall down once in a while.  Better yet, let them pick themselves up once they’ve fallen.  The more a kid picks himself up, the more determination he’ll develop to keep going until victory is achieved.  If anything, praise effort—especially effort after a failure.  This way, the struggling student can push themselves, rather than the artificial and often ingenuine efforts of adults to encourage through constant praise.

 Life doesn’t care about people’s feelings.  What it does have is plenty of winning and losing—and probably more of the latter.  The sooner a kid gets used to the realities of life, the better adjusted and more mature they will become.

Next time your kid is in the no-score kickball game, have him aim straight for the crotch of the pansy-ass who thought of this waste of time.  Believe me, there’s a definite winner there.


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This Day in History 12/21: The Birth of the Crossword Puzzle

If you’ve ever thrown down a pencil at frustration at the New York Times, today’s post is right up your alley.

Today we celebrate the birthday of the crossword puzzle, that criss-cross table of craziness and insanity that has distracted commuters and early risers at Sunday breakfast for decades.  There are two stories to the birth of this puzzle: the first involves an Italian magazine in 1890.  The Italian puzzle had a grid with no diagram i.e. no black squares, so it’s a puzzle, but not really a crossword.

The modern puzzle began on December 21, 1913. when Arthur Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool, Scotland, created a puzzle for the New York World called a “word-cross”.  The names were reversed and a legend was born.

Yet the crossword was not without its critics.  It exploded in the 1920s, and many conservative pundits viewed it as a sign of the loose morals of the period–a passing fad.   According to a 1924 New York Times article, a clergyman called the working of crossword puzzles “the mark of a childish mentality” and said “There is no use for persons to pretend that working one of the puzzles carries any intellectual value with it.”  Some thought the craze would end with the decade. 

Even the New York Times itself, which would become famous for its crossword, was a critic.    In 1924, the Times complained of the “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport… [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.”

Funny how the Times would start a crossword itself by 1942, and would be the most well-known of puzzles in America and the world, along with the Times of London’s puzzle.

Almost every daily newspaper, including web editions, has some form of the crossword puzzle.  Many, like Will Shortz’ acclaimed Times puzzles, become progressively harder each day of the week, so that by Saturday you just look at it and whimper like a small child about to get paddled.  Crosswords are also a great way for students to stimulate vocabulary–by using common definitions or clues for complex words, students can build their word power and make new connections in their brain, allowing them greater cognitive function.

Here are some websites to some more crosswords fun at home or in the classroom:

Puzzles from USA Today, including Crosswords – okay, so its USA Today; we’re not dealing with the varsity.  Still it’s good practice.

Washington Post Crosswords – these kept me going in college, and are pretty good.  They hold up well to the NYT standard.

Yahoo! Daily Crossword – great to pass the time.

Crossword Puzzles – This one is a great clearinghouse for US and UK crosswords.

New York Times Crossword – The one by which all are measured.  It’s a pay site, so getting the print edition may be cheaper (maybe not).  The ultimate in crossword practice.

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Where the Environment Matters: the legacy of the Milton Hershey School


Courtesy of Milton Hershey School

Sometimes those ideals that have been ignored for years can still work—in spite of efforts to undermine them.

I was privileged to attend a screening of Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Cynthia Wade’s newest film, a documentary about the Milton Hershey School.  The film, at least partially, proved two things for me: (a) there are people in corporate America who actually care; and (b) the old-fashioned way can still work in education.

 MHS is a PreK-12 school for underprivileged children in Hershey, Pennsylvania, just across the street from Hershey Park.  Milton Hershey, the founder of the Hershey chocolate empire, and his wife founded the school in 1909.  Since they were unable to have children, the Hersheys founded a school where children in desperate economic or family situations can learn and grow in a safe nurturing environment.

The school is comprised of over 1800 students sprawled across buildings throughout the town.  The school is funded by the Hershey Trust Company, which owns the controlling shares of stock in the Hershey Company.  This is particularly helpful when similar ventures are struggling due to lack of funds: it’s nice when a school has a blue-chip company for a piggy bank.

Regardless of these resources, MHS does not pride itself on its riches, but rather its people.  The core of their philosophy is the house parenting system.  Students who enroll in MHS live in single-gender family houses run by house parents.  These parents act as the authority figures these children often lack: chores are done strictly, discipline is assertive and effective, and studies are monitored rigorously.  Furthermore, these parents are the students’ principle cheerleaders and advocates: they form a liaison with the school and their biological/legal guardians, to ensure the best interests of the children are met.

As I was watching the film, the emphasis was almost exclusively on the house parents and the student house system.  As interesting as it was, I was a little skeptical.  This is an academic institution, after all.  I didn’t see a whole lot of teaching.  Yet when the scenes in the classroom did appear, I was astonished.

Students were not in guided reading groups, but in rows. 

Old fashioned tests and essays. 

No mandated time for this or that, as far as I could see. 

The school seems almost entirely devoid of the theoretical nonsense that has clouded public education for the last two decades.  Calkins, Fountas, Pinnell, Wiggins, Marzano—the heavy hitters of educational theory for the last twenty years seemingly ignored.

Milton Hershey School teaches a valuable lesson.  Theories don’t work unless children feel safe and secure in their home environment.  MHS doesn’t need Teachers College or Bank Street to tell them what to do.  As long as the home environment is monitored and nurtured, it doesn’t matter what pedagogy or curriculum design you use.

To say Milton Hershey School is a success story is a severe understatement.  According to MHS, 90% of their graduates go on to some form of higher education.  MHS graduates have gone on to become CEOs, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, even high ranking officers in our armed forces.  I also had the pleasure of meeting some MHS students at the screening.  If these kids came from troubled homes, it sure didn’t show.  The alumni assembled look like a gathering of Ivy League swells: there’s not even a hint that these successful people were once in desperate situations.

The biggest concern is that the fruits of the MHS experiment seem lost on the grand poobahs of education.  To them, the opposite is true: the teacher makes the student, regardless of their background.  Simply train the teacher better in the newest theories—not necessarily the best ones—and that teacher can work miracles.  This is the thinking behind a lot of the methods coming out of the large schools of education.

What’s more frightening is that the wrong people, the people in power, take these theories seriously.

Public school teachers must deal with children as they come, with whatever baggage they take from their home life.  As such, teachers have to adjust their practice in order to connect to children that see the school as the only real form of structure in their life.  This is where the theories come in: it places the onus on the teacher almost exclusively since it is assumed nothing is provided at home.  The public school does not have the luxury of altering the environment of children as MHS does. 

Yet if the MHS experiment shows the value of a stable home life, regardless of the academic theories or methods used in the classroom, shouldn’t there be some effort on the part of school districts to help smooth out the rough edges of these kids’ lives?

The MHS experience shows how environment matters.  Districts across America should use this example and reach out more to families and homes–and work with teachers as a partner, not as miracle workers.  Many community programs exist that help parents to become successful along with their children.  These programs provide a huge help in changing what in many public schools is another intangible obstacle. 

Milton Hershey School is a place that’s going in the right direction.  More administrators in this country should take its example–and less from the academics who seem to go in every direction.

For more information about the school, visit http://www.mhs-pa.org

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