The other night my daughter had her first musical theatre audition. In recent months my husband and I have discovered her incredible singing talent. I decided to foster this gift and massage her into something where she can flourish. She’s an artist and often dabbles in things for short periods before losing interest. She doesn’t really harness that stick-to-it-ness even when she enjoys something.
I wasn’t going to let this one go. Yes, we’ve invested a pretty penny into singing lessons and acting camps. But I honestly wouldn’t do if she didn’t have the talent.
That isn’t so for everyone.
At her audition we sat next to a family of a girl who was going to get up on that stage to sing. When I say family, I mean they took up an entire row. Everyone showed up, and both mom and dad sat on either end of the aisle with cameras fixed in hand so they didn’t miss a single note.
I have to admit I was a little start struck when it came time for this kid to get on stage. She was going to blow me away with her flawless rendition of “Memory”.
Notes fluttered out of her like a clucking chicken and her range was pretty limit. Nevertheless, mom stood up and encouraged her to just belt it out. She was brought to tears as her little girl performed a song I couldn’t even recognize because it was so off key. This kid pranced off stage and her mother said she was flawless.
I am never one to tell kids they can’t try things. Team sports are a great way to build confidence in those kids who need to make friends or feel a part of something. Theatre is a great way for shy kids to learn to feel comfortable in front of crowds. But telling your kid she’s Adele when she more closely resembles Phyllis Diller—well, that’s just setting her up for a lifetime of confusion.
There is a bit of polarization in my house because my husband wants our daughter to play sports. In his words, do something active (read: sports). She’s not an athlete. I’m totally okay with that even though I spent my childhood playing sports.
I’m not going to force her to do something she doesn’t like and quite frankly sucks at. He hasn’t jumped on board to put our incredibly athletic son in dance or theatre classes. Wonder why? (Love you, honey!)
I can’t be the mom on the sideline with the pompoms who cheers her on while she sits on the bench. I think the cheerleader parenting mentality doesn’t allow our kids to have a genuine sense of satisfaction when they actually do something great. If they think everything they do is great, then how will they know the difference between failure and success? How will they ever get better at anything or find their true passion when they are told their entire lives they are good at EVERYTHING?
It’s not just the parents that are guilty of cheering kids on even when they suck. I think my generation was the first to get participation badges. “You showed up, so here’s a prize!” Or, “Even if you didn’t show up, we have a trophy that your mom can come pick up when she has time.”
I remember how lackluster my shiny blue ribbons felt when I returned to class after field day. Sure, I’d won the 50 and 100-meter dashes, the potato sack races. No one gathered ‘round to see my accolades because they were each marveling at their own red participation ribbon of suckitude. Okay, maybe kids don’t actually gather ‘round each other’s desks with congratulatory praise.
Perhaps it was my parents’ generation who always felt no matter what they did they couldn’t please their parents. So to make up for it, they decided everything their kids did was prize-worthy. And it just spiraled downward from there.
I can’t even sit in the lobby of my daughter’s singing lessons because I hear the crackling screeches of kids with no talent rippling over her sultry voice. Singing isn’t like piano or guitar when you can eventually pick it up. You either got it or you don’t.
It then makes me wonder why these teachers can’t find it in them to tell the parents there’s no hope. They just put up with it month after month, accepting payments, and creating future American Idol cast-offs. The ones who truly don’t understand why they didn’t make it because they’ve heard they are talented their entire lives.
I felt in the same bind when I was a teacher. I’d call in parents to talk about how their kid never did anything in my class, hence the big fat F on his progress reports. I found myself beginning with a list of positive qualities when all I really wanted to say is YOUR KID SUCKS IN MY CLASS.
I sucked at a lot of things growing up. I tried out for basketball and dislocated my shoulder in a pick-up game. Yep, basketball was not my sport. I was okay with that. I couldn’t get past the cartwheel in gymnastics. Totally fine. I tried out for chorus in middle school and soon realized my teacher never offered me a solo and always put me in the back corner for a reason. Left chorus after one semester. I’m not scarred.
Of course, sucking at something doesn’t mean you can never get better. I put myself through college waiting tables and bartending. When I first started waitressing, I sucked. Big time. I forgot orders, would get frazzled, spilled and dropped things.
I didn’t want to give up because it was good money so I figured out a system to help me get better. I had to get into the groove of things and it took me a long time to actually not suck at my job. My managers weren’t encouraging me or giving me attagirls either. They let me know how terrible I was and how often I screwed things up. I knew in order to keep my job I had to get better at it.
I’m concerned that our ‘rewards system’ teaches our children to focus on the prize rather than the accomplishment or lesson. My daughter’s teacher last year gave them candy for everything. Get an answer right, get a candy. Sit quietly at your desk, get a candy. Rather than expecting certain behaviors as part of normal life, they are rewarding kids for doing things they should be doing anyway.
So what happens when they get into the actual world where they are expect to do things, well, because it’s their job to do these things? How will they respond if they don’t receive constant praise for their efforts? Will they not learn how to perform task because there’s no prize for doing it?
Of course, I am not 100% innocent of never giving unwarranted praise. Sometimes I use it as a preventative measure, and shame on me for it. If my son sucked at his soccer game because he didn’t try, I tell him good job just so he doesn’t pout the entire ride home. That’s wrong of me, and it’s a terrible coping mechanism.
And there are situations when I think rewards are in order even when children aren’t exhibiting the correct behavior—like when your 2-year old is screaming for her cup even though she won’t sit in her chair on the packed airplane, person sitting right next to me! Just give her the damn cup so we can all be happy!
Our children need to experience disappoint and failure to appreciate what it means to truly accomplish great things. We owe that to them. As a collective whole, let’s put the badges away, hide the candy stash, and let our kids function in our society like practical people. It builds character. It makes them problem solvers. It makes them brave and gives them a sense of accomplishment. And if they aren’t good at something, let them know it’s okay to suck. We love them to pieces no matter what.