Natural Selection and Rubberised Playgrounds

I have lots of friends who are teachers. We have some interesting conversations from time to time, often about specific kids and their challenges. Most of the time we speak empathically about the kids involved and their struggles academically and socially but occasionally we diverge into the area of parenting and protectionism.

Most of us will have seen those posts on Facebook that talk about all the things that those of us who grew up in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s experienced and survived: drinking from garden hoses, riding in cars without seatbelts, riding bikes without helmets, going out to play in the neighbourhood for hours on end as long as we were home before the street-lights came on, and the one that had me reminiscing, hitch-hiking.

I had actually almost forgotten about it, but a flood of memories came back. Before I was old enough to drive – so in my mid-teens – hitch-hiking was the quickest and easiest way to get around. Many of the things that I did socially involved getting to places that weren’t particularly well serviced by public transport, so hitch-hiking was the mode-de-jour. Granted, my mother didn’t particularly like it, but it was so very convenient. I’d walk a block to the main road, stick a finger out (Note: always the index finger; never a thumb as they do in America), and usually before too long, a complete stranger would stop, there would be a brief exchange of the direction each of you were headed, you’d jump in and get part or all the way to your destination. But I digress.

My son made a comment about my generation that did all these “dangerous” things without dying or, in the case of the garden hose, without even getting sick. He said, “Yeah, well you guys may have done all that but how come you became the ones who made the crazy rules that robbed our generation of the same freedom?”

It was true. My generation was the one that changed the rules and started getting very protective about our own children. Why? What happened? Most of the stats don’t show that the world is any more dangerous now, so why the generational knee-jerk?

OK, seat-belts in cars I can understand. I can kind-of understand bike helmets, especially considering that my youngest son was saved from almost certain death by one. But I wonder if we have become somewhat over-protective when it comes to the next generation, and if that could be doing them a profound disservice.

Many of the rules and practices could be construed as sensible, like the aforementioned seat belts and helmets, but as far as the practices of and towards our children are concerned, have we gone too far?

I hear of parents who send their kids to school with water bottles (presumably because they could contract typhoid from the school bubblers) and hot/cold packs to keep their gourmet lunches at the right temperature; many of these same parents will insist upon whom their children sit next to in class, indeed will insist on which particular class or teacher their little ones have.

Perish the thought that kids should leave their water bottle, gourmet lunch or homework at home. If that happens, they’ll be on their smart phone texting mum or dad to bring it up to school, which mum and dad obligingly do.

Now, I am a parent too, and yes, I’ve raced something to school that a child had left at home. I get that. But there seems to be something much deeper going on here.

Most educators will acknowledge that one of the key elements in learning is the ability to make mistakes, to understand that they were mistakes and then to learn from them so that they don’t happen again.

Obviously, this shouldn’t apply in life-threatening situations, such as wearing seat-belts in a moving vehicle, but there are some areas where I believe we have overstepped the mark on what we think is looking after our kids.

I may seem like a grouchy, old man, but how will a child ever learn not to leave things at home if she/he is continually bailed out by a parent? How will a child learn the depth of application required for excellence if everyone gets a ribbon for just participating? Moreover, how will a child learn to discern good work from rubbish if everything they do gets unqualified praise?

Let me say, I’m all for encouragement. But we shouldn’t confuse encouragement with flattery. For instance, if a ten-year-old brings home a piece of art that they’d created at school and shows it to you, most of us, myself included at one time, would say, “Oh Joey, what a beautiful piece of art. How wonderful! You must be very proud!” or words to that effect.

Now, the piece involved is, in reality, a confused mess of colour, completely lacking in an obvious subject. Such a response on my part is probably irresponsible, because there is now no way for that child to discern the difference between that response and the equal response given when they actually may create something good.

This is flattery, not encouragement, and it ultimately causes difficulty for a child because they gradually become inured to praise, and unable to see the value in “lifting their game”; furthermore they come to expect praise for any level of effort. It could well be that over-encouragement has been a contributor to the “entitled” generations that are so complained about by employers: “Hey, I’ve been here for six weeks! Where’s my pay rise and promotion?!”.

So what should I do when Joey shows me the art?

I read a study recently that talked about this phenomenon. The suggestion would be when they bring something to you that doesn’t have any observable merit other than the fact that they did it, the first thing you should do is look at it and, in a positive way, ask questions about it. “So, you did this in class, huh? And what did the teacher ask you to do?”

Joey answers.

“Uh-huh,” you respond. “So, tell me about this piece…”

Eventually, you ask them how they feel about it, whether they might have done it differently if they’d had more time, whether they like art, etc, etc. By the end of the conversation, hopefully Joey will not only have a better grip on how to do better, but also feel affirmed in his ability to do so, knowing that his parent loves him.

Over-encouragement – flattery – or misplaced encouragement is a form of protection. We don’t want our kids to feel bad, so we tell them that what they do is great, even if it isn’t. But this protection will ultimately hurt them.

I often joke about the “soft-fall”, rubberised playgrounds that will see us with a whole generation of adults with broken bones and fractured skulls because they never felt what it was like to land on hard ground and therefore didn’t learn to fall safely. I know it’s a long bow, but it is a kind of metaphor. How can we expect our kids to be resilient if they never get a chance to learn resilience?

The son of a friend of mine is the coach of an under-fourteens football team and to encourage the kids, he awarded points each game throughout the season: Three points to the best player, two for next best and one point for third best. He ensured to the best of his ability that he was even-handed in awarding the points. One of the parents called him and told him in no uncertain terms that his son hadn’t been awarded enough points and what was he going to do about it. It was a real quandary for him. He was just trying to be genuinely encouraging, yet here was a parent who expected that his son deserved unmerited encouragement.

I heard recently that Australia has overtaken the U.S. as the most litigious society in the world, and from what I hear, a good chunk of that is parents suing schools, councils, sporting associations, etc., because little Katy tripped on a tree root a broke her wrist, or Alvin didn’t make the first-grade team, or the Principal wouldn’t let Emily go up a year even though she was clearly a very bright child.

I know, I know, I’m a grumpy, old man. I also know that for those of us with kids, they are our most precious assets. We want the best for them; we want to be their champions; we want to ensure their success. But we need to be careful that in our zeal we don’t keep them from the very things that will help them to be successful.

Let them encounter the troubled kid in the class who might be a bit disruptive – it will help them fit into society more graciously and productively knowing that it takes all kinds. Let them fall down and graze their knee; eventually, they’ll learn respect for how hard the ground is and when to walk instead of run. Let them go without lunch for a day; most kids will share anyway, or a teacher might spring for a couple of bucks at the canteen; they might even be upset with you for not dropping everything to take their lunch to school; but eventually they’ll learn not to forget.

Just about all of the teachers that I know love kids. They want to support our kids, most of them believe it is their calling, so let them do the teaching with our support and encouragement. They have a tough enough time wrangling thirty kids every day without having to wrangle a dozen parents as well.

We have a responsibility to let our kids learn resilience and understanding from everything and everyone that they encounter, so that they can become resilient, understanding adults. We owe it to them and to ourselves, because they’ll be running the country soon and if it all turns sour, they’ll be looking for someone to blame; and it just might be us.

– Matt is a father of three boys and a grumpy. old man, so is well-qualified to write on this subject.

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