What If I Hadn’t Been Held To Higher Standards?

gold medalI just happened to view one of “Jacks Rants” over at The Survival Podcast, and it really got me thinking.  What if I hadn’t been held to a higher standard when I was a kid? What if I got a reward just because I showed up? How would my life be today?

In many ways, I wasn’t any different than any other kid growing up in the Midwest in the ’70s and ’80s.  My parents worked hard, and we kids spent a lot of time playing hard.  There were expectations though.  And it wasn’t until the last few years that I actually realized the value of life schooling that my parents and other adults in our lives gave us.

Obviously, my specific situation was a little different.  Growing up legally blind, it would have been easy for my parents to baby me.  It would have been easy for them to say, “Oh, it’s OK, Honey.  Let me do that for you since I know it’s hard.” Or even worse, they could have said to me, “Here’s your award for participating.  That’s good enough.”

See, I honestly think that if I’d been treated that way, I never would have learned to take care of myself, I never would have learned to read or write, and most importantly, nobody would have realized that I was gifted.  People would have looked at me with pity while saying, “Oh, that poor little girl.  Life’s gonna be so hard for her.”

Now let me tell you that life WAS hard for me, but it didn’t take me long at all to adapt and overcome.  In fact, I’ve always said that if I hadn’t had challenges at an early age, if the people around me didn’t require anything of me, I likely would have grown up to be a lazy person who just did enough to get by, never realizing her full potential.

As parents, it’s tempting to baby our kids.  It’s tempting to tell them that they deserve an aware for showing up and participating.  But I know from my own experience that children meet the expectations you set for them.  Set the bar low and they’ll meet those challenges, but set the bar high and they’ll surprise the heck out of you! Essentially what I’m saying is that if we reward everyone for everything, we encourage mediocrity, but if we expect and reward the best, everyone strives to fill the top slots.

Here’s a f’r instance for you.  When I was in the fourth grade, our little elementary school had an art contest.  Each child made a picture, and the best from each grade were picked for a final judging.  Then, the best picture from the entire school went to a special exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  I worked and worked on my picture.  It was supposed to be the ocean, and I remember trying SO hard.  I even tried to use some techniques that I’d learned from Bob Ross on PBS back in the day.  I really wanted to win.

crayon drawing of the oceanWhen it came time for the judging, I was thrilled to learn that my picture was selected as the best in the fourth grade.  Even more shocking to me was the news that my picture was selected to hang in the Museum of Art.  The picture was mounted and it got a special frame.  I was so proud.  I still remember feeling that pride and accomplishment when my parents took me to view the exhibit with all the other kids’ pictures.

Now, as far as I know, the contest wasn’t rigged at the local level.  People weren’t saying, “Let’s pick Sarah’s picture because she’s blind and isn’t that just so cute that she could do that?” I really think my picture was picked because it was good.  I worked REALLY hard on it, and I REALLY wanted to win.  (And just as an interesting aside, I still have that picture in my closet all these years later.)

If I HAD gotten the sympathy vote, that victory wouldn’t have meant anything to me.  Winning was special because winning was special.  It wasn’t something that everyone would do.

Today though, we’re setting a completely different standard.  Everyone’s supposed to be special.  Everyone’s supposed to win.  Everyone’s supposed to get a reward for simply showing up.  In my kids’ classrooms at school, for example, they’re given “rewards” for doing what was just expected of us when we were in school.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying there’s no value to positive consequences.  Positive consequences can be extremely effective.  But when positive consequences are being showered upon our children for the dumbest of reasons, those consequences lose any sort of meaning.  The kids just come to expect them.  “OK, Teacher.  I walked into school and hung up my backpack.  Where’s my candy?” It’s become utterly ridiculous.

And then there’s this idea that everything has to be “fair”.  What did our parents tell us when we were kids though? “Life ain’t fair!” I’ve changed that bit of priceless wisdom with my kids though.  They can all recite it word for word.  When one of them says, “Well, that’s not fair,”, I say, “If life were fair, you’d be paying rent!” Basically, it’s my way of telling the kids that life isn’t always fair, and in reality, the world wouldn’t be that great a place if life WERE fair all the time.

I know I sound hard, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to set expectations for my kids that’ll help make my job obsolete.  I don’t want to still be doing their laundry when they’re 30.  My kids are capable of greatness, but they won’t discover that for themselves if greatness isn’t expected.  They’re still allowed to be kids, but they’ll be prepared for the way the real world works.  They’ll be able to adapt and overcome, and I don’t think they’d be able to do that if they got a reward every time they accomplished the most meaningless of tasks.

And I guess there’s one other important point that I haven’t made yet.  If we attempt to motivate children purely with external rewards, those children can’t develop the skills to meet their needs internally.  What I mean is this.  If I’m always giving my kids candy as a reward, they never have the chance to learn how to feel rewarded without candy.

Kids are amazingly creative.  If we let them figure out the answers without spoon-feeding them, they’ll be remarkably resilient in the end.  If we give everyone a gold star though, nobody has to try.  Nobody has to innovate.  Nobody has to figure out how to improvise, adapt, and overcome!

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