When Everyone is Above Average
By Charles Rush
September 19, 2010
Genesis 27: 1-32
(Isaac, Esau, and Jacob stealing the blessing)
(mp3, 7.9Mb) ]
meone dropped off an article in the New York Times from the Metropolitan section. Jennifer Greenstein had her son in baseball league in East Brunswick this summer. Season went well and the last day the coach is handing out awards. Her son’s name is called out, he runs back with a trophy and hands it to his Mom. Trophy says “Most Valuable Player”. “Wow”, she’s thinking, my little Nerdy McNerdster must have started hitting the cover off the ball towards the end of the season. But before she starts pumping her fist, she wisely turns to the neighbors on either side of her and discovers… every one got a “Most Valuable Player” award.[i] She notes that MVP, at least for our 7 and 8 year old leagues actually stands for “Most Vacuous Praise”.
And I wish it
were confined to the soccer field. Alas, her son got home from his class game
day at school sporting a certificate that awarded him ‘Second Place’. Upon
being congratulated, her son rolled his eyes, annoyed, “Mom,
… there were only two teams”.
We are rather
rapidly moving into the world of Lake Wobegon where
all the children are above average and I’m a little worried about what that is
going to mean for Dresser sizes in the near future. We had more and more
trophies collecting with each of our children, despite the fact that the best
athletes were born first. They got them more and more often for a wider and
wider variety of things that we had to keep buying larger and larger dresser
drawers to accommodate their legion of accolade. I’m worried that this could be
a kind of “self-esteem Kudzu” so that my grandchildren won’t be able to clear a
space for a path to their bed what with all of the awards they are going to
earn. My grandchildren may not have the skill of LeBron
James or Eli Manning, but by damn, they are going to collect some sports bling to make them think they are Derek Jeter or ARod.
If you find
yourself asking the question of our first text this morning, ‘how come Isaac,
even if he’s an old man, is so blind that he doesn’t even recognize his own
kids?’ I’m afraid that the joke is on you. “How can we be so blind?” we ask
again in every generation.
I’m not sure
how the ‘self-esteem’ movement jumped into third gear, but my generation is probably
to blame. The common wisdom of my youth was that positive self-esteem would
indirectly cure all manner of social ills from teen pregnancy to drug use to
welfare dependency to grade point averages at failing school districts. It
crept into the main-stream pedagogy in the 80’s.
We were the
generation that started putting little positive notes in their backpacks in the
morning, warm fuzzies as my wife used to call them. We were the generation
invented Sesame Street, where all the diversity of our world was a daily cause
for celebration, where even Kermit the
frog used to sing, “it is great being green”, and even Ms. Piggy developed a
way to see herself as beautiful. And we
are all beautiful.
when Dr. Roy Baumeister did his primary research on
the correlation between high self-esteem and social outcomes, the evidence
wasn’t quite as promising. It turns out
that people with high self-esteem don’t make better grades, don’t have bigger
careers, don’t use less alcohol, don’t have lower
levels of violence. [ii]
That is the kind of empirical data that sends you back to the drawing board.
had a new set of phenomenon that began to emerge during the last generation,
after the use of praise had become normative in most all of our institutions.
Dr. Wulf-Uwe Meyer documented how our kids had begun to see
through our words to interpret the social cues behind them in new ways. He
discovered that our kids got it that when the teacher praises them over and
over, that also means that the teacher thinks that they are at or beyond our
natural ability. Dr. Meyer noticed that by the time kids got to Middle School,
they avoided praise intentionally because too much praise from a teacher was
something of a stigma.
psychologists that simply studied the classroom started to document other
unintended symptoms as well. Varying the amount of praise that students got in
class, they noticed that the more praise students got, the more the students
checked in with the teachers through eye-contact, looking for affirmation and
feedback. They were more dependent.
more students in class got praised, the more often they would actually answer a
question with an intonation in their voice that sounded like they were
answering a question with a question. As in, ‘Who discovered the New World?”
Answer “Christopher Columbus???” game show style. They were tentative.
insight… Researchers discovered that over-praised kids were also more likely to
drop a course earlier in college if it wasn’t working out. They were having
difficulty with set back and failure.
psychologists still began to document how we use praise at home with our
children and discovered that too much of the time, when we think we are just
being affirming in our communication with our children, we were actually sending
complex dual communiqués that praised our kids while at the same time, we were also
sending them a not so subtle subliminal message communicated through our
emphases that communicated our very high expectations for them to achieve a
certain image of success.
On the domestic
front, Professor Carol Dweck documented how our over-praise of teens in this
manner correlates with an increased sense of competition, and an increased
frequency that these teens will be verbally aggressive with their peers as a
consequence of interiorizing this anxiety of high expectations. She noted that
these teens became over focused on “image maintenance”, on how they are
was done in the 80’s and 90’s. I might add during this time, on the social
level, the primary form of TV entertainment for this rising generation was Real
World, Temptation Island, Survivor… The
whole host of Reality TV programs, drug rehab shows, The Jersey Shore.
Their media world had also given them a lot of self-absorbed image maintenance modeled
for them in their free time their whole childhood.
itself wasn’t the net good that we had broad-brushed it to be. What we
discovered, actually, is that it was possible to train our children so that by
the time they were teens, they were becoming ‘risk-averse’. We found out that
we could unwittingly make them more dependent than they wanted to be and more
dependent than we wanted them to be.
We began to see
an increased frequency in cheating and it turned out to be somewhat broader
than simply our new found exposure to the possibilities for plagiarism on the
internet. What we realized is that our kids were not well equipped to handle
…Ooops, we didn’t mean to do that? Like Isaac, how could we
be so blind? Like Rebekkah, how could we collude with
the rising generation to produce this? Alas, as Jesus used to say, “Seeing, they do
not see. Hearing they do not hear”. And this is, every generation.
It turns out
that how you praise and how often you praise are
probably very important. Professor Carol Dweck did a simple test in 5th
grade classrooms in New York City. Every student took a quiz. Their scores were
shared with them.
One group was
told that they were smart. As in “You scored high on this test, you must have a
high IQ “
The other group
was praised for their hard work. As in “You aced this exam, you must have
really concentrated hard”.
forward enough. Then the kids were given a second test and given a choice of
tests to take. You could take a harder test or you could take a test that was
about the same as the one that you had just taken.
result: The students that were praised for their brains. When given the choice,
the majority of them took the easy test. The students that
were praised for their effort. 90% of them chose the harder test. If you
tell your kids they are smart, they are less likely to challenge themselves
rather than if you tell them they are hard workers. What is the difference?[iv]
control how smart we are. It is a given in our broad genetic makeup. We can
control effort, how hard we actually work at something. When we praise
intelligence, Professor Dweck observed that our kids actually interiorize this
message ‘Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes’. Their need for image
maintenance inadvertently encourages the safety of not really taking risks. In
some cases, as many of us have experienced in a maddening way with our boys,
our teens don’t actually want to work that hard because if they did, then they
wouldn’t be perceived as not having this natural ability.
Oops… We didn’t
intend that. By the way, Professor Dweck found out that this holds true for
girls and boys, for every socioeconomic class. I would venture to guess that
every single parent my age has engaged in this at some time or the other, some
of us routinely.
One other thing
that Professor Dweck documented regarding praising kids for their native
intelligence, they have a harder time dealing with failure. They are more
likely to just collapse or quit when they become swamped. But as we all know,
persistence in the midst of set back and difficulty is essential in almost
every field to thriving and creating a place for yourself.
Oops… We didn’t intend to undermine the
virtue of persistence either.
seeing this when I was still teaching at Rutgers University fifteen years ago.
And that is when it would come home to roost for most students. You get to
college and everyone is as smart or smarter than you.
That is when this becomes a bigger identity issue than it need be.
I suspect that
Po Bronson is right. He remarked that ‘praise has become a sort of panacea for
the anxieties of modern parenting.’ What we want to communicate is that we are
unconditionally supportive, we love you.
It turns out, we are more effective with that message if we praise specific
acts that have real virtue, as opposed to undifferentiated praise all the time.
We are more effective, if we only praise intermittently, so that our children
don’t become praise dependent for their motivation, and they develop
persistence. We are more effective if we teach them that the brain is like a
muscle that gets stronger the more it is exercised. This, they can do.
We don’t want
to accidentally raise entitled children. Isaac and Rebekah
didn’t intend this either. In some ways, our biblical story is a symbolic
window into a family that actually produced an entitled child. Dad was blind to
what was going on and Mom was actually enabling… and neither of the parents
actually know and neither of them know (exactly) what
to do about this embarrassing situation. So in their old age, they reap this
painful episode where one brother actually dupes the other brother out of his
birthright. The fact that this is irrevocable to us might sound somewhat
arbitrary across 3000 years but symbolically it is always the case that our
blindness as parents, and these blind spots tend to run across the entire
our enabling behaviors also tend to run across the entire generation, have
consequences intended and unintended and they are what they are.
The values of
our spiritual tradition can be of help here. A balanced self-image is
important. St. Paul lifts up humility as a cardinal virtue. That word actually
means ‘an honest and frank assessment of yourself and other people’.
There is a
saying in the Orthodox Jewish Community that says: “Keep two pieces of paper in
your pockets at all times. On one write, ‘I am a speck of dust’. On the other,
‘The World was created for me’.”We are ordinary and unique.
Jesus taught us
that we are all able to become ‘children of God’. We are best when we live out
of the fullest spiritual potential that is resident in each of us. Judaism
teaches the same thing. One of the legendary Rabbi’s of yore, Rabbi Zusya said, “When I reach the world to come, God will not
ask me why I wasn’t more like Moses. He will ask me why I wasn’t more like Zusya.” You are meant to actualize your authentic self. [v]
So, in our
spiritual tradition, we are taught that our children are a gift from God. They
are loaned to us and our job is to raise them to independence. And if we are lucky, to encourage and see the actualization of
their potential. That is what we do on our good days,
we empower people to become who they were meant to be.
And the good
news from the latest research in the psychology department is that this isn’t
as difficult as it sounds, at least not what you are responsible for.
[summarizing the state of research] at Penn noted that when we actually began
to empirically study the impact of childhood upon adulthood, the connection was
less than expected. Trauma’s from childhood- loss,
divorce, neglect, illness- have some impact on adult personality but it is not
Freud, the driving theory of psychoanalysis has been that the events of the
first few years of childhood were determinative for personality type in
adulthood. And from that, there
developed a presumption that events of childhood generally were fairly
determinative of your adult life. But when we actually did controlled studies,
this archetype didn’t really hold up at all. We are more malleable than we
studying Freud, Alder, and Piaget thinking that what a tremendous burden all of
that put on Mother’s especially, since they are primary in the first 6 years
usually. Frankly, it is quite a relief to know that if we have simply prevented
deprivation, if we have simply provided safety and security, if we can simply live a life of order
with some humanity, that is good.
of the converse is also true. All of the added extras that want to give our
children: travel, great camping
experience, music lessons, elite college experience, scuba diving, huge parties,
theater and the arts. All of these also only have a marginal impact on our
adult personality. [vii]
Donald Winnicot, a British pediatrician, reflecting the change of
focus, says that parents and grandparents simply need to be ‘good enough’. He
remarked that our children’s “inherited potential will be realized” when “the
environmental provision is adequate.”[viii]
Doesn’t have to be great… Adequate is fine.
We don’t have
to fill each moment with intentional meaning. And even if we want to, we can’t
entirely control how are children will turn out in
adulthood, even if we are controlling the whole way along. There should be a
certain exhalation in knowing you are only asked to do your part and that you
are doing your part already above the minimum grade. Beyond a certain point,
more is not actually better, it is just more.
insight settles in across the generation, it is possible that we might actually
grow and find a rhythm and balance in our family lives that will take us where
we want to live. We may dial back from the frenetic pace that has characterized
the family weekend for the past decade and a half.
Perhaps you saw
the cartoon in the New Yorker that featured two little boys on the swings at
the playground, trying to arrange a play date. They are both looking down at
their blackberries. One says, “Monday is no good for me. I have Yoga, piano
recital, and a sushi fund-raiser at school.” Perhaps a bit overpacked.
understanding has so changed in the past decade is understanding
the way our neurology, the way the brain functions, and what that means for our
personality development. In ye olden days, we had a great deal of emphasis on
human rationality, the prowess of mathematical and scientific reasoning- the
more abstract, the more sophisticated.
Today, we are
getting a clearer picture of the fact that this part of our brain, the newest
evolutionary adaptation, is rooted in a quite complex emotional life. The vast
majority of our communication is spent around our emotional life- how we feel
about our family, our loved ones, ourselves, our work.
Humans are very
relational beings. And our success in life is not only about developing our
simple rational capacity, it is also about developing
our relational skills. And our happiness in life, the way we find deep and
genuine fulfillment is through having profound and positive relationships
around us. It is not only being able to analytically understand the world, it
is also about being able to be involved with other people: to care and be cared
for, to love, and allow others to love you, to be empathetic and construct
solutions that involve the needs of everyone in the group, to be reconciling
and to know to repair relationships where hurt and injury has happened, to find
internal motivation to set your own goals and develop the perseverance to
withstand hardship and overcome obstacles and deal with set
back, frustration, and defeat, to express an optimistic approach to life
and a ‘can do’ attitude, to be respectful and mindful, even of your competitors
and figure out a way to make competition mutually beneficial.[ix]
The list is
longer still. And the point is that these insights come to us, not from the
pulpit, but from the neurologists and psychologists at Harvard
In order to
find a successful and fulfilling life, we need to develop and mature these
emotional capacities. Without them, people have significant difficulties and
limitations which is why the smartest guy in the company is rarely running the
company, analytical reasoning being only one of a wide range of intelligences,
or people skills that are necessary for you to be an effective member of a team
that works in relative harmony.
What we will
figure out in the next couple decades is exactly how important this all is for
developing a meaningful life, a subject that will become more and more
important as societies become more complex. Once our lower order needs are
relatively met, our higher order needs become more prominent and significant in
our life. Ten generations ago, it simply didn’t not occur to our ancestors to
think of finding fulfillment in through their work for the vast majority of us
because that was not really a possibility and the amount of time we had to
spend on fulfilling basic lower order needs occupied most of our adult
attention, but the question of finding fulfillment through your vocation has
grown prominently for most of us over the past 3 generations.
We will find
more ways and better ways to exercise our children’s character that they might
grow healthy in a holistic way. So let me commend you on being such excellent
parents that you are here today. You are wonderful. You are fantastic. As
Stuart Smalley used to say, “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and
doggone it, people like you.” Why, during coffee hour, we should give you all
“Most Valuable Parent” awards… Just kidding. Amen.
Jennifer Greenstein, “When M.V.P. Means “Most Vacuous Praise”, NYT, Sunday,
August 29, 2010, p. NJ2.
This section is a summary of Po Bronson and Ashley Merriweather’s
summary of the state of the research in
“Nurture Shock” (New York:Hattchett Book Group,
2009), pp. 21 ff.. I haven’t read any refutations of the broad consensus which is what I’m
interested in here. That said, I haven’t
checked the academic accuracy of the studies themselves, and am open to
[iii] Ibiid. p. 21.
[iv] Ibid. but the
original article can be found at Dweck, Carol S. “The Perils and Promise of
Praise, Educational Leadership, vol.
65, no. 2, (2007)
got this idea from Wendy Mogul’s book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” (New York:Scribner’s, 2001), pp. 49
Seligman, Martin “Authentic Happiness” (New York: Free Press, 2002), pp. 66ff.
One caveat… I can’t find this reference. It may well need qualification.
From Wendy Mogul, p. 54, 55.
Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New
York: Bantam, 2005) Goleman is a Harvard Ph.d. who summarizes the state of the research and makes it
accessible without the technical syntax of the science that is so difficult to
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