Shame, Praise, American Idols & Undercutting Greatness

I hope we have reached the nadir of Reality TV, now. It’s all getting too creepy.

More than a decade after 16-year-old Amy Fisher had a sexual relationship with a much-older car mechanic and shot his wife in the face, the one-time “Long Island Lolita” and Joey and Mary Jo Buttafuoco have agreed to appear together in a televised reunion.

The man has sex with a minor, the minor blows a hole in the man’s wife’s face, and now they’re all going to go on TV and revisit it. Again.

My brother Thom wonders “whatever happened to the idea of shame?”

I don’t watch any “reality” TV shows. Buster has tried to get me to watch American Idol because “sometimes there are talented people auditioning,” and that may be – while I sat with him last week, I did see a few kids who seemed talented – but for the most part, I felt very uncomfortable with it. There is something wrong with training the cameras on clueless people while others react to them with scorn or mockery and revulsion. I watched and thought – what does this say about us as a society? Are there so many people out there convinced that they are “great” simply because we have become a generation (or two) of parents who are so busy “praising” our children (to protect their delicate, way-overvalued self-esteem) that we’re not being honest enough to say, “honey…singing is not what God made you for…” Are we, as a society, encouraging a generation of delusion?

70 years ago, the “experts” warned parents not to praise their children because it would give them “big heads. That was not great advice. A family member used to tell a story about how she danced at a recital and then ran to her grandmother looking for praise, and her grandmother laughed and said, “you dance just like an elephant…”

60 years later, when she related that story, you could still sense her pain. The kid was crushed.

Obviously, there is no reason to completely dash a child’s efforts, and if dancing gives them pleasure, let ‘em dance! But there are better ways to gently direct their dreams elsewhere.

I think we’ve gone too far the other way
, now. I know when I had kids, the “experts” were telling us how important it was to “validate” and “praise” our offspring, and I watched myself (and the moms around me) really overdo it, until our kids became praise junkies. These days children are praised for every belch they blurt. At every school event they all get “certificates” that somehow denote their “specialness.” Every kid on every team gets a trophy, no matter how crummy the season – they get rewarded for the “effort.” Nevermind that such a mindset has nothing to do with real life. In real life, a bus driver who runs a red light and creates a traffic disaster is not rewarded for his “effort.” A doctor who makes a serious error is not feted for his “good try…”

Many schools have discontinued Honor Rolls and Science Fairs because the distinction of “excellence” for a few kids is deemed “hurtful” to the vast majority of kids.

We hear, “it’s not fair to distinguish a few, because EVERYONE is special.” Which means, of course, that no one is.

Excellence is not to be celebrated, unless average-ness is celebrated too. The message it sends is not “be all you can be,” but “average is the new superior, and mediocre is the new outstanding, and don’t tell Johnny there is something he’s not good at.”

What delicate little wusses we are raising!

It seems to me the best way we can “celebrate averageness” is by accepting the fact that the great majority of us are pretty average individuals, faulty and human, and by understanding that there is something solid and dependable about all those”average” folks with “average” values who make up the world – who build its bridges and spaceships and guard its safety and grow its food. The world as we know it could not exist without “average” people, and that’s plenty “special.” Broadly considered, it is “great.” But we don’t have to make a big fuss over it.

Perhaps our society seems so out of whack because everyone is trying so desperately to stand out from the great vast ocean of unremarkable “specialness” into which they have been thrust.

It is simply true that most people live their lives unknown to all but their immediate family and friends, and they die and in a generation or two, they are completely forgotten – except, perhaps, by people like me, who like to go to cemeteries and take rubbings from headstones. This has always been true, since the dawn of time, and there is absolutely no reason to downplay the dignity and effectiveness that comes with being an average human being.

There was only one Moses, but it was the whole anonymous gang of average Jews who eventually populated the Promised Land. There was only one Martin Luther King but the whole anonymous gang of average marchers who made the trips to Mobile and to Washington DC. There was only one Churchill, but hundreds of thousands of average allied soldiers who put his policies into effect and beat down a great evil. There is only one Dubya, but 150,000 troops liberating Iraq and trying to make a risky-but-visionary effort succeed.

All those “average” men and women, who sojourned or marched or fought had a degree of greatness and nobility to them, and it could be found in their principles or their determination or their steadfastness – but they still, in each case, needed someone with a distinctive edge, with just a tad more “greatness” to bring them together. And there is absolutely no reason not to recognise it.

There have only been 43 American Presidents in 230 years. There have only been 267 popes in 2000 years. There have been billions of other people. Greatness is not an illusion. And it is not fomented with easy praise. I worry sometimes that our over-indulged, over-applauded youngsters may not have the requisite strength within themselves to find “greatness” when we will need it.

Winston Churchill was not a pandered-to child. His father neglected him; his mother put high society before him. Only his nanny was faithful to him. He was shipped out to boarding school and suffered under a cruel headmaster and boys who thought him stupid because he could not excell in ancient languages. No one ever applauded Winston or gushed at him. And yet he seemed to have the sort of inner-resources which today appear scarce in our children. After being paddled by a headmaster with a heavy hand, who seemed to take pleasure in the pain he was causing, the young student Winston stood erect, looked the headmaster in the eye and said, “I shall be a greater man than you.”

When he did become a man, he began to self-educate himself – reading Milton and MacCauley and Gibbons and Pascal – and when early in his political career he made a speech that was well received he noted the pleasure he took in it, “I had never been praised, before!”

“We are all worms,” wrote Winston Churchill, “but I do believe I am a glowworm.”

Churchill understood who he was. You would never have seen him stomping off from an audition with tears in his eyes insisting, “I’m a great singer! Everyone I know says it, and I don’t care what you say!”

My husband and I had a little disagreement recently. Buster had sung a featured role in the school musical and – while he sang it beautifully and acted it very well, I couldn’t help but remark that he would have been even better if he’d remembered to face the audience. My husband thought I had done wrong to “criticize,” and said I may have hurt Buster’s feelings because, “the kid put his heart into that…”

Knowing Buster as I do, I doubted very much that I had hurt him, but my husband’s promptings did make me wonder, so last night I asked him about it. I asked Buster if he had felt “criticized” or in anyway put down by my opinion. He said, “no, actually, if you watched, the next two performances, I made a point to face the audience more, and it played better. I would rather know what you really think than just hear how great I am all the time. If all you did was praise me, it would be meaningless.”

Churchill had greatness in him, but it was not formed by a childhood and youth spent basking in unmerited praise. It was something he found within himself, when circumstances demanded it. I wonder if he would have been able to find that greatness, had he needed to first wade through an psyche filled with junk-adoration and delusions or, conversely, a psyche filled with scornful self-doubt.

Parenting involves balancing,
trying to find the right way to encourage a child without filling his head with false notions of superiority or dashing her dreams by treating them with disrespect. Are we failing at this, are we out of balance? If so, the whole world, the great majority of us average folk, will pay for it.

Churchill. He would not have been a winner on American Idol – he would have been mocked for his tubbiness, and sent away by people who couldn’t polish his shoes, and who likely would not understand a word he said.

Frank Sinatra and his glorious legato would have aced American Idol. And too many would consider him, in the end, greater than Churchill, simply because of the glamour quotient. Our values are a bit skewed.

After one of Buster’s school performances, over coffee, a good pal joked with Buster that he should audition for American Idol.

“I’m not wasting my 15 minutes on that,” he said, surprising her. “I am going to be the President of the United States.”

“Oh,” she replied. “You sound just like Bill Clinton. He always said he’d be president, someday, too!”

Egad. Buster’s been saying that since he was 8. Heaven knows what damage I, a well-meaning mother, have done!

Reader I Am has more thoughts.

UPDATE: Maxed Out Mama expands on these thoughts, brilliantly. Jeanette has a very interesting perspective on memories and ancestors which relates to this post.

UPDATE II: I find myself weirdly into AI this year.

Daughtry, Sutherland, Bryn, I’m an Idolator
Dang, Chris Daughtry is good
Elliott Yamin, Moody’s Mood for Love

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Sigmund Carl and Alfred

    This post was worth waiting for. Superb.

    We are facing a culture of narcissism that now has deep roots in our society.

    Opinions are now final, not part of debate or an exchange of ideas.

    Brave new world? I think not.

  • misskelley

    I’m 48 and work for an environmental engineering company. Several of my middle-aged co-workers and I have commented that many recent college grads have a greatly inflated sense of their knowledge and value. They seem a bit resentful if they don’t receive lots and lots of praise. They seem largely unwilling to do grunt work and learn the ropes for a few years. Ten years ago, entry level staff knew that they were entry level staff, and that they had to apprentice for a few years. Many of today’s college grads don’t seem to realize that.

    Also related to this, I have a 15-year old niece who is an enthusiastic but not especially talented athlete. Noentheless, her bedroom is crammed with sports awards. I think all you need to do anymore is show up and you’ll get an award. Makes me wonder what the rooms of the outstanding athletes look like! How do their poor parents find room for all the awards?

  • MaxedOutMama

    Anchoress, this is a great, great and truly important post.

    It’s not just that the kids have overinflated egos – it’s also that we are preparing them to fail at life abysmally, and they do unless they hare so fortunate as to have parents who are real parents.

    They don’t have the grit to deal with the ups and downs of real life. They haven’t had constructive criticism so it feels like a blow to the belly. They haven’t had a chance to form any ability to step back and look at themselves with an objective eye.

    You could tell these kids the story about Benjamin Franklin and his journal and they wouldn’t understand it all all. They wouldn’t understand how the average can learn to excel. They wouldn’t understand the pleasure of overcoming your weaknesses, because they haven’t learned they have weaknesses to overcome.

    It is tragic. It is a lost generation.

  • TheAnchoress

    Mama, thanks for the kind words. Your observation that They wouldn’t understand the pleasure of overcoming your weaknesses, because they haven’t learned they have weaknesses to overcome Reminds me of what Dick Morris wrote about Hillary Clinton – after the failure of her health care plan, Morris told her that she could endear herself to the public if she would just joke about herself a little, play on her weaknesses. Hillary thought for a while and said, “but I don’t have any…” Tells a lot.

  • newton

    As a child, I was praised left and right for all kinds of things at school. After freshman year of college, I didn’t believe it anymore.
    All it took was that first F on a class, and a psychology professor who called me a “retard” to put me in the path of permanent self-doubt.
    Nowadays, the sig.other, a guy who made a C average at probably one of the toughest engineering schools in the country – and a federal academy at that – is excelling at his career and being considered for higher positions. I, however, have become just a shadow of what I used to be. It has been hard to get out of that hole in which I was dwelling, but I’m learning a lot in the process.
    I think I can rise, at last. I think I can.

  • newton

    Self-doubt has plagued me ever since. Even after earning another college degree with honors, I still think I’m not good enough for anything.

    I guess you can call it the other side of the “self-esteem” coin.

  • Bob Diethrich

    Actually Madame, a few psychologists have already stated that “American Idol” may be just what the doctor ordred for today’s pampered, over praised generation. The kids who have never heard the word “no,” or any word of criticism (contructive or otherwise) are now getting from Simon! To wit: Average American Idol conversation, Contestant: “But my friends say I am a good singer!” Simon: “Your friends are idiots; You S**K!” As a I teacher I can agree with this, although I refuse to watch the show.

  • Donna

    misskelley: I’ve trained a few 20-something kids during the past 20 years and I can attest to the truth of what you say. I don’t think I’m stingy with praise or encouragement; however I’m taken aback when young people seem to expect hosannas for things like being on time for work, not calling in “sick” a couple of times a month, not making personal calls all day long, etc. They’ve gotten the idea that following basic office rules that everyone has to follow is somehow a sign of extraordinary personal virtue on their part. I hope they get the message by the time they reach 30 – the average American boss is not going to promote you, shower you with kisses, and throw bonuses your way just because you decided to show up this morning.

  • Donna

    Oops, that should read “over the past 10 years.” 20 years ago I was a “20 something kid” myself!

  • JMC

    For the past 20 years they’ve been wondering why Johnny can’t read. It’s because they’re too busy teaching him to “feel good” about himself! I’m a 50-year-old college returnee and am currently suffering through a Spanish class with a teacher who seems to think he’s teaching kindergarten—or is that the way they teach these days? He talks with what I call a “merry sunshine” voice and expects us to applaud every single answer by another student, whether it’s right or wrong, just for the effort. If this is the way they teach in grade and high schools, it’s no wonder they’re having behavior problems with the kids. I can barely sit still through all this bulls**t myself; I certainly don’t expect a kid to put up with it. *** Another reason we have kids that aren’t the least bit prepared for real life is what I call the “Sesame Street” syndrome. Older readers will remember the controversy in Sesame Street’s early years, in which they said the show was unrealistic because it pretended the bad things in life didn’t exist. The answer was, if you teach kids idealism, they’ll put these theories into practice when they grow up. Hmph. Didn’t work very well, did it? I still own my third-grade readers, (Yes, there were two of them) and today’s younger parents and teachers would be appalled at what’s in them. In one book, there was a family wherein the father was permanently lamed by a work accident. There was another about a family whose house burned down. The other had a subplot running through it about a town that was flooded out in a storm, and the people had to evacuate to another city. It talked about how the scared the kids were, about how homes in low-lying areas were washing away. It mentioned, albeit briefly, that some went missing in the storm and were never found. And, when the people returned to their town, it talked about the mess they found, about homes, churches, and schools that had to be torn down because they were too badly damaged to be repaired. (I’ve since seen a later edition of the same book, and that subplot was gone.) There were stories where adults and children died in epidemics, and even stories about child martyrs. There were plenty of “happy” stories, too, but the whole upshot was a balanced look at life from an eight-year-old’s point of view. I suspect you’d have a hard time finding that sort of outlook in a reader today. *** I’ve seen microfiches of newspapers from World War II, beginning with Pearl Harbor. Nobody worried about the “psychological trauma” on kids then, they way they did after 9/11. It’s because back then, kids were raised to know that, as we say today, “s**t happens.” And they wonder why kids and young adults today fall apart at the first sign of adversity.

  • MaxedOutMama

    Newton, I am so sorry. Yes, that’s exactly what I was referring to. The contrast between the real world and the one you had been taught to believe in was so huge that the encounter was shocking and painful. You are not alone at all. An awful lot of college students are winding up on anxiety medication when they have a similar experience.

    Newton, you have proved what you can do. Turn that self-doubt into a drive to show them. Neither the praise of your early schooling or the criticism of that college professor has anything to do with the real person you are, and that will largely be determined by the path that you decide to take.

  • Ellen

    We are finding out that most students don’t suffer from low self-esteem at all. They think they are just fine and dandy no matter what they do. I teach part-time in a university, and I’ve had students who think they deserve an A just for showing up and not answering their cell phones in class.

    As for the Fisher/Buttafuco spectacle…well, I am speechless. Just when I think the medium has reached a new low, it gets out the shovel and digs.

  • http://none Darrell

    Newton, why do you place so much value on one person’s opinion that was so obviously wrong? I look forward to reading all your comments every time I see your name. Trust in yourself as others do. Do your best and find that it is so much more than is required.

  • Jeanette

    I did a post based on this post but as usual I can’t get the trackback to work. It’s actually just a takeoff from one paragraph of your post. You can see it at Oh How I Love Jesus if you wish to read it. It’s actually talking about forgetting someone in one or two generations and in some cases even earlier.

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