Sunday, June 05, 2005

Cotton-wool generation


Now there’s a word that conjures up memories, be they of fun times, playing football at break, hanging out with good friends, or pant-wettingly, daily humiliating experiences.

Now, I never liked school, in fact I hated it. I thought the people who told you that ‘School days are the happiest days of your life’ were obviously on crack. The same routine, day in and day out. Learning things that you’ll never use in your life (like trigonometry, since leaving school, I’ve never had to work out the tangent of the angle from the hypotenuse and opposite…I know, I was a shocked as you are). Detention, lines, explaining to your teacher why you didn’t do your homework again. The usually day in day out crap your average student has to deal with.

However, as an adult, even though I hated school when I was there, I realized that it was important. After all, very few things that are worthwhile are fun.

School appears to have changed a bit since I was there, though, and I can honestly say that I feel sorry for every school pupil in the western world right now…although not for the reason you probably think.

Some bright spark, in the interests of good ideas that don’t work in real life, has changed the way school, the most formative years of your life, works. They’ve taken the school experience, and have willfully and completely divorced it from every aspect of real life.

I first became aware of this when my cousin became a teacher. We where talking about her new job.I asked her what it felt like to wield the dreaded red pen. I was amazed to hear they no longer use a red pen.They now, by law, have to use a green one.

Of course I asked her why.

“Because red is considered too aggressive.”

Pardon my language, but …What the fuck!?

In this time of political correctness, the people in charge have removed everything that can be considered offensive, aggressive or competitive from school. It’s not allowed any more. Everyone is the same, regardless of intelligence or effort level.

For example, when I was in primary school, (back in the Halcyon days of the 1990's) if you did well at something you got a house point. The house points were marked on a chart, 6 feet high, where everyone could see it. Your points where right next to everyone else’s. Everyone could see how they where doing in comparison to everyone else. Also, if you where bad, you got a de-merit, which put a black mark over one of your points (That was in addition to some sort of punishment, like being made to stay inside at break time, or in senior school, detention).

House points encouraged competitiveness. If you where ahead of the pack, great, if you lagged behind, oh well, sucks for you, try harder!

Not any more.

Any ‘public’ display of how good or bad you’re doing is no longer allowed because it ‘may make a child feel inferior’.


I hate to burst some bubbles here, but if you had the least house points in the class….you were inferior to everyone else.

Inferiority is a fact of life. It may be shameful, it may damage your high valued ‘self esteem’, but that’s the point. It’s supposed to. No matter how well you do in life, or in a particular field, chances are there’s someone better than you. Deal with it. It’s not nice to know you’re not as good as someone else…but it’s not supposed to!

That’s the point. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has to learn how to deal with coming second. You can either feel sorry for yourself, cry that it’s not fair, or go and complain and whine to someone... Or, you can knuckle down and work harder, put in the effort and improve.

Apparently, now, learning this lesson is no longer important. Instead you have to make sure that a child’s ‘self-worth’ is not affected. Self-esteem is now the most important thing. God forbid a student is made to feel inferior, that he isn’t just as good, intelligent or important as everyone else. That fact that they might not be as intelligent as everyone else doesn’t factor into it.

Am I wrong in thinking that someone should actually have to achieve something before they can feel good about themselves?

Self-esteem can go to hell.

Imagine being one of these kids. Leaving school, a world where everyone is the same, there is no such thing as second place, and what you feel is more important that what you achieve. Then you go for your first job interview… and don’t get it.

Holy shit! Someone is better than you. Who knew life was marked on actual achievements, rather than the fact that you believe you deserve that job just as much as everyone else? Duck everyone! The sky is falling down!

Even if they pass that hurdle, they start work, and suddenly, how well you do and what you can achieve becomes the most important thing in your life. In the real world, if you work for a big company and you drop the ball, you’re in the shit. No question.

You can be sure your boss isn’t going to send you a memo, written in green ink to not be confrontational, and let you know that while you completely fucked up and cost the company a few million dollars, everything is ok, because at least you tried…and here’s a bonus for ‘taking part’.

It’s just not going to happen, but that’s what the school system is leading kids to believe.

Everyone, apparently, is the same as everyone else…trying to be the best is wrong, and losing, failing and screwing up doesn’t matter.

Oh, how I wish that were actually true.

Even school sports days have changed:

Sport is all about competition. Sport was actually invented as a safe alternative to warfare, so one person, town or country could compete against another and see who was the best, without actually having to kill anyone. That’s the whole point of sport. Two people, or two teams compete to see who is better. One wins, the other loses. It’s a way to measure your own skills against everyone else’s, to find out how good you really are. How good you think you are isn’t a factor.

Not at school though. Even if you come last, you get a medal for taking part.

There are even sports today like Tee-Ball, a version of Baseball, that isn’t even scored! Everyone gets their turn batting and fielding…then everyone goes home. Someone has come along, and to protect these poor children’s sense of self worth, has completely removed the point of the activity. It’s like shooting at a target with blank bullets.

What’s next?

“What a great World Cup this has been people. The score is ‘everyone had a good time and got some nice exercise’. Both teams are getting their ‘taking part’ award right now. Isn’t this great, all the players are feeling really good about themselves!”

In short, winners and losers have been removed from schools, and unfortunately, without losers, there can be no winners. As a child, when you win something, be it a good grade or a medal for coming first in the 100 meter sprint…doesn’t it de-value the whole thing that everyone gets a reward as well as you? ‘Taking part’ is the important thing, the fact that you worked hard and put the effort in to become better than everyone else no longer matters.

This may seem an off the wall example, but what ‘Syndrome’ in ‘The Incredibles’, is remarkably true and illustrates my point entirely. He says he is going to use his inventions to be a superhero, then when he’s had his fun, sell them. He says:

“Then everyone can be super; and when everyone is super…no one will be.”

No Winners. No Losers.

It’s going to be one hell of a culture shock when these kids meet real life.

Life is competition. Life is about winning and losing. Life isn’t fair. Sure, it’s not a nice thought, but it’s true and ignoring it won’t go away.

By now, many of you may think I’m saying this because I was an over-achiever at school, won on sports day, got straight A’s and was an all round model student who doesn’t know what it was like to be bad at something. That I think my own achievements were overshadowed and devalued by the other kids getting a reward as well.

You could not be more wrong.

I was a strictly average student, sucked royally at sports, and the only award I won at school was ‘best costume’ at a Halloween party. No, I tell a lie, I once came second in the shot-putt on sports day.

However, coming second was a victory for me.


Because the year before I came last, so I worked hard to do better. That’s my point. If everyone was given a medal, I’d have got home, put it on a shelf and thought no more about it.

Instead, coming last hurt. It was embarrassing to officially be the worst shot-putter in the school, especially as I was representing my ‘house’ and had people counting on me. After losing I made sure that next year, the same thing would not happen again.

I learned how to deal with failure, and learned the only way to prevent it was to work harder. I didn’t come first, but I learned that if I worked even harder, it was possible.

Looking at the house point chart showed me I could do better. Seeing only the winner on sports day with a trophy made me want one even more. Getting a piece of work back with crosses on it in bright red ink let me know I’d failed and had to work harder.

I left school knowing that you had to work to succeed. You had to earn your rewards. I knew what failure felt like and how to deal with it.

We’re raising a generation of children who have no idea what the real world is like, where there are no real consequences for your actions and it is impossible to lose.

When these children leave school, how are they going to deal with their first failure? They’ve not experienced it before. In life, when you fail, you don’t get a ‘do over’, you don’t get credit for taking part, you don’t get a reward for at least trying. You get fired, you get in trouble… you end up with a real problem to deal with.

Self esteem, self worth and confidence are all very nice. But in a world where failing can be the difference between eating and not eating that week… not teaching our children that it’s possible to lose is a very dangerous thing.

In life, employers want the best people available. If you fail, you lose your job. Turning up and ‘trying’ isn’t enough.

I know it’s not a nice thought. But that’s life.

You just have to know how to deal with it; and wrapping our children in cotton wool to protect their poor, fragile sense of self-esteem isn’t going to help them.

Self-esteem is not given. You have to earn it.


Miz S said...

Another very thought provoking article.


Vicarious Living said...

We had a flag system in my 5th grade class; blue, green, red, all with different meanings. I LIVED for having the most blue flags. There was a huge chart in the room and it was a focal point.

At work, our manager sends out emails and faxes weekly listing how everyone is doing in various areas. It is a motivator, you do not want to be last on the list, you do not want that other guy to do better than you. All this may make me more competitive than is healthy, but at least I know where I stand in things!

Paulius said...

Before anyone thinks I'm an old fart, pining for the good old days, I'm actually 24.

We didn't even have a flag system. For the first 2 years of school, corporal punishment was allowed (which I don't agree with...I had some psycho teachers).

However, after that, if you were bad, you didn't get got shouted at and made to 'stand out' at the front of the class for the rest of the lesson...and the work you missed while standing out was done at break time. If it was the end of the day, you took the work home, along with a note to your parents explaining why you had to do it.

Now you're supposed to sit the child down and 'explain' that what they did was wrong. That doesn't work with 5 year olds.

If that had happened to me, at home or at school, I'd have thought "Great, I can do whatever I want and all I get is a 5 minute talk!"

I'm not saying the answer is verbal abuse...there's a huge difference between abuse and discipline...which is the distinction we seem to have lost.

serendipity said...

There was no physical punishment when I was at school(and i'm 29) but we did have the 'house points' system. I aree with everything you have said in you article.

I watch the younger generation now and see their total disregard for authority and their total belief that they pretty much know everything. We bitch and complain about how the 'kids of today' are turning out, but the truth is we are creating these little monsters.

Ok, Monsters might be a touch harsh, but when I was at school if I swore at a teacher, I would have faced certain suspension - possible expulsion. Nowadays they aren't even allowed to say 'expelled' - the have to say 'excluded'

It makes life much more difficult for parents to teach their children to be respectful of their elders and to try hard in every aspect of their life, when the child then goes to school and is taught 'It's not how hard you try, it's just that u take part'...and the teachers no longer have the authority to discipline them so the child appears to have the upper hand.

Surely, we need to do something about all the moralistic do gooders who are turning what could be wonderful intelligent children, into spoilt, narcissistic brats.

Oh, and yeah - you touched a nerve :)