Well, it’s over. Summer vacation, that glorious time of year when parents don’t fret about their children’s I.Q, is over. The beginning of a new school year means the beginning of a new race, and though Vicki Abeles was quite right in her assessment that we are racing to nowhere, it seems most people still want to get there first. In an effort to reassure themselves, parents will soon be bragging about the academic achievements and sporting conquests of their offspring. Everyone’s self-esteem will be exceedingly high. Except mine. And my kids’. I’m not sure which came first, my distaste of high self-esteem, or my lack of anything to warrant it. Either way, in the Kaczor family, we’ve taken to bragging about our humility.
Training starts early with the intention of developing of a child who is astonished by the smallest compliment. Toddlers are told to “Put a sock in it.” “Not everything that passes through your little mind needs to be verbalized,” I explain. Later, when the kids start school and are told by well-meaning teachers that “there are no stupid questions,” I take them aside and inform them that, in fact, most questions are stupid. “Don’t just raise your hand to raise your hand,” I warn, “any dolt can do that.” “And for God’s sake, if you don’t know the answer, don’t raise it at all.” And when visiting other people’s homes, I instruct them to “Make yourself scarce.” “Don’t stand around waiting to be entertained: the less the hostess sees of you, the better she’ll like you.”
You might think that my kids are emotional wrecks. Ha! The truth is, it’s not easy to keep a child down. My kids are very nearly as full of themselves as are their peers. In addition to occasionally telling them that we love them, my husband and I made the mistake of telling them how much God loves them. Once that cat was out of the bag, there was no stopping them. Had we added to that arsenal, praise for every half-witted comment or slapped together art project, we’d have raised children who were Disney Channel parodies of themselves.
Still, it’s a battle. The other day my nine year old, who fancies himself a young Johnny Carson, was going through his entire repertoire of voices during the bitter end of a road trip. “George!” I screamed. “Put a sock in it!” My husband, worried that I might be stifling a lucrative career, asked me if I thought I might be doing just that. Before I could answer, George announced his intention to become a squirrel when he grows up. “No dear,” I replied, “I don’t think so.”
George is irrepressible. But other of my children have taken my training more seriously. William, a tall boy of eleven who resembles Huck Finn in taste and temperament, is used to teachers and coaches being disappointed in him. His homework, when completed, is forgotten. His calisthenics are lazy and his running lackadaisical. Other than his shy smile and his intermittent kindness, he’s earned no real self-esteem and, consequently, has no real self-esteem. In short, he’s my kind of kid.
Years ago, when my oldest daughter was twelve and I was watching her bat a volleyball around a gym, I found myself having two very strange conversations that solidified my parenting philosophy and produced my William. I began these conversations, as I often do, with a compliment. One of my daughter’s classmates was better at coaxing the ball over the net than her peers, and so I turned to her mother and said: “Penelope is very good at volleyball.” That, of course, was her cue to say “Thank you.” What I got was rather more, and less, than I expected. “Oh, yes!” said the mother. “Penelope is an athlete. She’s a known entity.” I leave the “known entity” up to you to dissect and enjoy: It’s absurdity is too rich. But even the more subtle “Penelope is an athlete” was silly.
While I will admit that in the English language we bestow the term “athlete” more generously than “lawyer,” or “doctor,” there is still some understanding that a real “athlete” is someone who earns a living off of their athletic skills–or is headed to the Olympics. By contrast, someone who is good at sports is called “athletic.” It’s a subtle distinction, I suppose, but one that bears out my complaint. We have gone too far in praising kids and giving them seriously inflated ideas of themselves. This, I guess, could be dismissed as relatively benign, except that science has shown that the higher a person’s self-esteem, the less moral they tend to be (see Dr. Baumeister’s research). In other words, the more they think of themselves, the less they think of others. The second conversation happened in the same way, but this time, the daughter didn’t just enjoy dancing, she was, according to her dear mama, “a dancer.” Yes, and my fifteen year old daughter who contrives excellent excuses for not cleaning her room, is not just argumentative, she’s “a lawyer.”
I have never told my children that they are “athletes.” I have told them to be good sports, to encourage their teammates, to listen to their coach, and to play hard. This Summer, William began playing basketball and I issued the usual instructions. Because of his height, I further told him to get as many rebounds as possible. But William is an erratic player. For the time being, you get what you get with William. Following one game in which he did not play particularly well, he turned to me and said: “That’s it. The coach hates me. And, by the way, I’m flunking basketball.”
“Flunking basketball?” I repeated. “You can’t flunk basketball. It’s not even a class! You are not flunking basketball.” I assured him. “Wanna bet?” He countered. “The coach hates me, he thinks I’m horrible, and he’s flunking me.” Confused by this sudden outburst, I demanded to know why William was taking such a hard view of things. “I saw his clipboard, Mom, and there is an F next to my name!” “Explain that!” he challenged.
In case you aren’t a big basketball fan, I’ll explain it to you as I explained it to William. “The ‘F’, you nut, stands for “Forward.” It took a second to register, and then William looked at me with his shy smile. “That makes sense,” he concluded, “because Gordie has a ‘G’ next to his name and he’s not just good, he’s really good.” “And Alex has a ‘C’,” William continued, “and he definitely deserves an A.” I put my arm around William’s waist and pulled him toward my chest. “And you, my little friend, don’t deserve an F.” I insisted. William just shrugged and smiled. If he keeps this up, I’ll soon be as insufferable as the other mothers; bragging about my son, “the martyr.”
Jennifer Kaczor lives in Los Angeles with her husband and seven children.