I was in line at the supermarket the other day behind a woman with a child of around two. He was sitting in the child seat of the cart, and his mother was handing him items to put on the belt so that he could help her unload the groceries. I’m always pleased when I see mothers with enough patience to do that kind of thing.
What did give me pause, however, was the fact that each item he placed on the belt—yes, every single one—elicited from his mother an increasingly emphatic cry of “Good job!” delivered in that over-enthusiastic voice that adults often adopt with small children. I’m all for positive reinforcement, but since putting cans of soup on a conveyer belt isn’t beyond the capabilities of any average toddler, I figured a “Thank you for helping Mommy,” delivered at the end of the process, would have been sufficient, and I wondered what Mommy would say if he did something truly remarkable. It was by no means the first time I’ve seen that, or something similar.
In the United Kingdom, I am told, there’s a movement to replace the term “failed”—as in failed an exam—with “deferred success.” Along the same euphemistic lines, several years ago, I was witness to a thoroughly irresponsible piece of driving by a juvenile that caused an accident in which several vehicles were damaged, but fortunately, no one was injured. I went to Fairfax County Juvenile Court to give evidence. The plea for the driver was “innocent” or “not innocent.”
These days, you mustn’t correct children’s homework with red ink because it’s traumatic for them. (Though as my cousin, a recently retired elementary school teacher points out, if your homework comes back covered in comments, it’s clear you got a lot of stuff wrong, whether the ink is red, green, or purple.)
A while back, I saw the results of a survey of the mathematical ability of high school students from 10 nations. In achievement, American children scored the lowest. The same survey students were asked to rate their own ability. In self-esteem, American children scored the highest. Self-esteem is good—if you have reason to esteem yourself highly. Otherwise it’s self-delusion.
Congratulated for breathing, protected from reality by euphemisms, and allowed to have an unrealistically inflated sense of their own abilities, children growing up today (it seems to me) are going to have a hard time when they go to work and hit the real world where people are not rewarded for simply showing up and are expected to take responsibility for their screw-ups.
But now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to ponder the following: Should I bask in the newfound comfort of my deferred success in high school Physics; or should I worry that the term implies a need to try again, whereas “failure,” as it was insensitively called in my day, happily releases me from further obligation?