Shame, Praise, Undercutting Greatness

Reposted from January, 2006

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

em>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 Li’l 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 little kind in her was still 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 recognize that.

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 excel 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, one 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 Macaulay 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, later in life, “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 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!

UPDATE: Maxed Out Mama expands on these thoughts, brilliantly.

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