Keeping Kids Safe From Success

An oft-repeated theme of my adult years, a time-frame covering two decades in the current reckoning, is the debilitating sense of entitlement that youngsters have today. The kids today, the story goes, think everything should be handed to them on a platter. The kids today, if we are to believe the premise, are a lost generation, shielded from appropriate discipline by an overbearing nanny-state bent on domination by accommodation. If only we had Bibles in our schools, or corporal punishment in our schools, or time for prayer in our schools. If only…

I met the lady I was destined to wed when I coached her youngest son in football. Meeting this child, and learning to be his parent, was a series of often painful shocks that were occasionally absorbed by moments of pure joy. The young man, who grew up to be a marvelously talented entertainer in his own right, was never much of a student. His Mom was (and remains) the ultimate soft touch; groundings from my wife are much like prison sentences with early paroles the rule rather than the exception. One of my first shocks as a young first-time step-parent, was the discovery that this child was allowed the use of a calculator…in the second grade. As I struggled with my responsibilities as a parent, the sources of this generation’s evil entitlement became clear; the fault lies exclusively with a generation of parents determined to shield their children from competition, conflict, and consequence.

My brother, sister, and I were all spanked as youngsters (I was spanked by my Kindergarten, 1st grade, and second grade teachers, in public school…I had a crush on my third grade teacher, Mrs. Krystal, and so did as I was told), and all grounded as teenagers (although my sister and I stick to an insistence that the baby…our brother…got away with murder.) Not without our petty psychological nuisances and character faults, we are all what most of society would describe as productive and moral adults. Similarly, my wife was required (as she grew up on a farm) to get her own switch (the tool of her punishment)…spanked and grounded herself, she also grew up to be healthy and productive. How is it, I wonder, that so many spanked, dodgeballed, and otherwise traumatized kids were able to grow up without morphing into psycho-killers?

With so much emotional baggage and terminally damaged psyches, how is it that the United States has not already found its way to the bottom of the waste-bin of history? Could it be that competition, conflict and learned resolution, and adherence to fair but firm consequences is, on the whole, better for our children than our current “give them a trophy for showing up” mentality? My argument in this space, is that our great American gift for overreaction was extended to how we, as a society, have dealt with fools that torture and bully their children, and idiots that believe losing a little league game is a big deal. As in so many other facets of our society, there is a moderate path that we should be walking with our children. The instinctive drive to protect our offspring must be refined…they should be protected from injury, pain is a different thing altogether.

Children are remarkable in their ability to rise to challenges. They have an immense capacity for learning, an insatiable curiosity, and a built-in ability to overcome small traumas. The time to lock in their work-ethic and foundational education is in the early years. The best method to accomplish this is for parents to do the work before the kids enter school, and ensure the growth continues once school has begun. Just a few minutes every day paired with a willingness to challenge your kids, and support the educators who push them at school, is enough to make a world of difference.

The most frightening trend, in my opinion, is the pattern of parents allowing their kids a pass on things they disliked when children themselves. Multiplication tables, vegetables, and the use of soap in the nightly bath might have been impositions when you were a child, but we use to grow up and accept the reasons behind the torments. Now, parents berate teachers that assign homework, question the need for mathematics in a calculator age (it is, by the way, the foundation for logical problem-solving), and embrace the “inner beauty” of their Type Two Diabetic children who came about their obesity and disease via their own parents who spared the vegetable and pushed the soda.

I work with at-risk children on a regular basis, and the most common denominator is not physical or sexual abuse, it is a complete lack of control and/or involvement with the kids. These kids grow up without a sense of hygiene, are allowed to bully their parents out of doing schoolwork, or are convinced that chores and/or physical punishment are against the law (they aren’t, at least in Illinois). Dropping out of school use to be a rarity, now it is almost common. The greatest nation in the world is growing ever more dependent on foreign engineers, physicists, computer programmers, and mathematicians because we abandoned the aggressive teaching of arithmetic, algebra, and trigonometry as a matter of basic principle. It is with gallows humor that I listen to the mostly conservative, evangelical, and anti-math and science folks of my area complain about the local college “that only hires foreigners to teach math”. The self-inflicted ignorance is on display across the breadth of our educational and child-rearing cultures, and it should be terrifying to any American that counts on our nation’s independent strength.

My high school calculus teacher use to say that there were hundreds of ways to skin a cat, and the same logic applies to this problem. There are millions of good ideas floating around teacher staff rooms, PTA’s, and social service agencies. It may even occur to some readers that this piece is guilty of the overreaction it complains of…so be it. If it sparks reasonable conversation on the need to and methods of challenging our kids to excel, then I can accept the consequences. Cut knees, tears after a loss, and the frustration of doing multiplication tables before playtime are all injuries that are quickly healed. Love them, push them, then fix their owies. In my experience, without undue and overwrought parental interference, youth football players forget terrible games the moment the post-game pizza hits their mouths. And that is just the way it should be.

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