Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Trouble With Gold Star Syndrome

As a follow-up to yesterday's blog, I want to take a moment to complain about our propensity to overpraise our kids to make us feel better as parents. If you haven't read it, listen to the argument of Lori Gottlieb who wrote a provocative cover story in the July-August issue of The Atlantic called "How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids." When I saw the cover art -- a huge gold trophy inscribed GOOD TRY, I smiled.

My son Jake played soccer for five years, and he wasn't very good and finally confessed years later that he hated it. I apologized. He should have just up and quit, but of course he didn't because he didn't want to disappoint his parents. (His street hoop game is pretty good, however.) I recall that he brought home trophy after trophy every season for simply showing up. In 1998 the West Side Soccer League even gave me a medal for my "commitment and service," presumably for setting up goal posts and painting the lines on blustery weekend mornings. The medal was larger than the one I won for finishing second in the New York State Wrestling Championships in 1967. The sacrifice, sweat and the hours of hard work that went into that little quarter-sized emblem was incalculable. I also remember a college wrestler winning an NCAA title make a telling comment to his beaming high school coach: "I wouldn't care if all they gave me was a postage stamp."

I know parents are trying to do the right thing. I realize that we're all struggling every day for that zen middle ground between humility and arrogance -- confidence without sounding off like a jerk? I guess -- but we've lost our way. Let the kids fail occasionally and then help them pick themselves up. It's a continuing life lesson, and the earlier they can handle it the better off they'll be.

I'm certainly proud of a lot of the things my son has done, but one thing he did really made me feel good. He tossed all those meaningless trophies that he had. Just cleared the shelf one day and never said a word about it. He knew all along. But I still have that little token that signified that on a Saturday a long time ago I was the second best wrestler in my weight class in New York State.

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