Can Coddled Kids Grow Up Strong? Part I

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I was searching for a good topic to blog on this week, when my local paper’s Letters to the Editor delivered one to me.  A lady wrote, “To the young lady [friend of the writer’s daughter] I saw robbed of her home run, I apologize on behalf of the adults in charge for taking away your moment.”


From the letter: “Devastation.  That is the feeling you get when you see the opposing team crush that young lady’s moment of joy by appealing to the umpire that the girl she batted in did not touch home plate, thereby annulling her home run.  When did this game become about the adults and not about the kids?”

If this had been a T-ball game and a bunch of parents from the opposing team were complaining that Missy’s home run didn’t count because Janie (fictitious names) didn’t touch a base, I would tend to agree.  However (per the letter) this was a high school varsity softball game.  At that level of play the game should be officiated “by the book.”  I would ask the writer if this were the state championship game and the two runs voided were the game winners for the other team, would she still think it was “adults robbing kids of their joy”? One of the key goals for kids participating in sports is to learn to play by the rules – all the rules – including the technicalities.   Would the letter-writer propose that the players only follow the rules when they “feel good”?  Which team gets to decide which rules “feel good”?  When do our kids learn that the details and the fine print are important?  If they grow up to be lawyers or business people, ignoring the details or the fine print can cost their clients and companies big bucks.  If they grow up to be engineers or doctors and ignore the scientific details that don’t “feel good” people can lose their lives.  My first point: “details count” is an important lesson.

Here is an example from raising my kids. (note, I made my share of mistakes, but I think I got this one mostly right.)  I was helping my younger son Frank’s class assemble model rockets.  Because my sons and I had assembled and successfully flown several single stage rockets, Frank wanted to try a two-stage rocket.  This was a good step up for him so I bought the more complex and expensive rocket.  Frank was making good progress with his rocket while I was helping some of the less experienced kids.  He reached a critical and tricky step in his assembly just as I was helping the others through equally key steps.  I asked him to wait, but either I didn’t emphasize “wait” enough, or he did the impatient kid thing.  He continued with the assembly and didn’t get the alignment correct.  Consequently, the stages couldn’t be mated.  We tried to correct the error, but the glue had dried and we lacked the skills to recover.  I could have chosen to rush out and buy an identical replacement rocket, but I decided not to.  I hope this contributed to Frank learning that patience and attention to detail are important.  And here is where lessons from childhood become important in adulthood:  He is now an electrician.  Patience and attention to detail can be literally life and death.

My second and more important point is: Enable our children and grandchildren to grow up strong.  At the high school varsity level we should be sending the message, “You are old enough and mature enough to be strong and survive, even thrive, when faced with adversity.”  Not, “Poor baby, do you have a booboo?”

Go to any elementary age sports contest and it seems there are two kinds of parents. Those who appear to believe their primary job is to ”help” their kid by pointing out everything that could be “improved” (subject for another blog).  And the parents who have nothing but praise for how “awesome” their kid played even when, or maybe especially when, they lost 50 to 10 or when their kid played only a little bit (poor coaching at beginner levels in my opinion).  Kids know when they deserve praise, and undeserved praise gives them no joy.  It robs them of the joy they could feel when they get praise they deserve.  Routine praise  doesn’t count.  By the time kids are eight or so they “know the score” including games without an official score.  This message is delivered in the movie, A Christmas Story (“You’ll shoot your eye out.”)  The scene:  One of the kids has just been rescued from freezing his tongue to the flagpole on a dare, and the teacher is trying to identify the guilty, “Somebody put poor Billy up to this, and the remorse you feel is far worse than any punishment I will give.”

The main character’s thoughts are shared with the audience, “Grown-ups always say that, but kids know better…”

It’s the same way with undeserved praise; kids know better.  The message we send isn’t, “I love you unconditionally” which is the one we intend.  The message often received is either, “I don’t think you are strong enough to take losing and learn from this.”  Or worse, “You are only lovable if you are a winner, so let’s pretend that you are.”    If we start the coddling praise at age 5 or 6, when do we stop 8, 12, 18?

We humans seem to learn best from painful experiences.  I think it was Will Rogers who said, “The wise man learns from other people’s mistakes.  Unfortunately most men have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

PS: Ms. SB you do not represent me: I don’t apologize.  If anyone owes the home run hitter an apology it’s her team mate who made the running error.  I’ll wager she has apologized, and the team has learned both a base-running lesson and maybe a life lesson.

We can’t prepare our Grandchildren for taking their place in life if we shield them from their own (non health and safety) mistakes.  More thoughts on raising stronger children / Grandchildren in Part II.

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