Yesterday, Father’s Day, after I’d been regaled with gifts and hoisted onto shoulders and paraded around town, and after visiting my old man and hoisting him up on my own shoulders and things had quieted down, in that quiet aftermath, I went to hit a bucket of golf balls. Midway, a father and his two sons and daughter filled the slot next to me, the oldest probably age eleven and the youngest about seven. The father clearly had a close relationship with his kids, he was encouraging, they all got along. A nice afternoon outing, I thought. As the kids stepped up to the tee, it became apparent they had little experience hitting a golf ball, which wasn’t a problem, but the father was insistent on offering tips, which also wasn’t a problem. He wasn’t overbearing, he was patient. Yet. After they hit balls that skidded about ten feet to their right, he’d offer comments such as, “Hey, great shot. Good swing.” What kind of lowly curmudgeon was I to counter in my head, No, that was a terrible shot, kid. To be clear, I’m not a good golfer, and I’ve hit more grass-burning shots than I care to remember, and if my buddies tried to cheer me by saying, devoid of sarcasm, “Hey, at least you’re closer to the pin,” which I can’t even imagine, but let’s just pretend, I’d still know. The ball is ten feet away from me. How can I not know? And I suspect that kids know too, no matter how much we try to sugarcoat.

I know exactly why I was so critical of the kind encouragement, though this doesn’t make me feel like any less of a slug. I just read an article by Lori Gottlieb in this month’s The Atlantic (July/August 2011) about how we coddle kids because we’re afraid we’ll damage their fragile self-esteem.

Here are the main points of the article, which is fascinating, the kind of article I wish I’d read when my kids were young because I see so much of myself in the warnings.

a) Parents do too much for their kids. As a result, kids don’t become resilient.

b) Parents rarely say No to their kids. As a result, kids don’t listen well to their parents.

c) Parents are too concerned with their children’s self-esteem. “All failures are reframed as ‘good tries,’ says Gottlieb. As a result, kids feel entitlement and in the worst cases become narcissistic. (Martin Seligman, former APA president has been arguing for years that self-esteem, while important, is overrated. Murderers, he says, often have high self-esteem. If we offer our kids empty, baseless praise simply to ensure high self-esteem, we are doing a disservice to our kids.)

d) Parents treat their kids like fragile “teacups.” Well, you can guess the result of that.

My mother sometimes tells me that I’ve raised my three daughters like flowers, which is amusing. My mom the poet. I don’t know if it’s true; I did my share of yelling when they were younger. When she says it, though, I smile. I like that image. And I suppose she’s mostly right. Better than raising them like weeds. 


06/20/2011 7:35pm

Great post, Tony. I'm always open to and appreciative of parenting talk/advice. It makes me think of Amy Chua and the article "A Nation of Wimps" a little bit. I think the goal should be balance - not giving artificial praise but also not discouraging continued effort on a given task. Thanks again for your thoughtful commentary!


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