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June 20, 2012

School, Before Self Esteem Became Job One

I read this a while back and it stayed with me:

In the mid-20th century, when I was in grade school, a child’s self-esteem was not a matter for concern. Shame was considered a spur to better behavior and accomplishment. If you flunked a test, you were singled out, and the offending sheet of paper, bloodied with red marks, was waved before the entire class as a warning, much the way our catechisms depicted a boy with black splotches on his soul.

Fear was also considered useful. In the fourth grade, right around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, one of the nuns at St. Petronille’s, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, told us that the Vatican had received a secret warning that the world would soon be consumed by a fatal nuclear exchange. The fact that the warning had purportedly been delivered by Our Lady of Fátima lent the prediction divine authority. (Any last sliver of doubt was removed by our viewing of the 1952 movie The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, wherein the Virgin Mary herself appeared on a luminous cloud.) We were surely cooked. I remember pondering the futility of existence, to say nothing of the futility of safety drills that involved huddling under desks. When the fateful sirens sounded, I resolved, I would be out of there. Down the front steps, across Hillside Avenue, over fences, and through backyards, I would take the shortest possible route home, where I planned to crawl under my father’s workbench in the basement. It was the sturdiest thing I had ever seen. I didn’t believe it would save me, but after weighing the alternatives carefully, I decided it was my preferred spot to face oblivion.

Now when children don't do well in school, we blame teachers who won't orient the entire class to a particular child's "natural learning style", or an uncaring system that hasn't massaged their egos hard enough or protected them from adversity or disapproval. Children are fragile hothouse flowers - so much so that they can't succeed without constant affirmation.

This is how I remember school too: shame and embarrassment were frequently used as goads. Adults reacted swiftly and (IMO) more naturally when children misbehaved - their anger and disapproval were not considered shameful abuses, but necessary feedback that sent a firm message that bad behavior would not be tolerated.

I've been struck by this recently while watching parents react to children who are pitching a fit. I have yet to see a single parent show visible annoyance or anger. My parents were loving (and I felt secure in their affection) but had I ever acted that way - especially in public - they would not have hesitated to let me know my behavior was unacceptable and disrespectful.

Far from making me feel unloved or insecure, this affirmed my proper place in the world. It was not as the center of the universe, but as one person among many. All of whom mattered.

Feel free to tell me where I'm wrong.

Posted by Cassandra at June 20, 2012 07:52 AM

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Maryland.

Posted by: Mr. Crabbypants at June 20, 2012 09:23 AM

Ppppppphhhhhhhtttttthhhhhh :)

Posted by: Cass at June 20, 2012 11:40 AM

Assistant Village Idiot has been arguing lately that mild shaming traditionally worked well on the top students but was disastrous for the struggling ones. Well, I don't know. I don't recall much shaming of any kind. My recollection is that, if you got it wrong, the teachers pointed it out pretty dispassionately and expected you to try again.

I think I may have told this story before, and if so I apologize. My eighth- or ninth-grade math teacher started teaching us all the standard stuff about factoring quadratic equations. Somehow, none of us got what she was talking about in the least. After a few weeks of this, instead of shaming us or getting at all upset, she announced that something seemed to have gone wrong, and she was going to start all over. The second time it all clicked for us, and we caught up with the curriculum by the end of the semester. She was extremely matter-of-fact, goal-oriented, and confident that we'd all get where we needed to be within a reasonable time. She fully intended to turn us over to the next year's teacher with the foundation we would need. She wouldn't have had the least interest in mulling over what might be unfairly holding us back, or in entertaining the notion that we should be allowed to fail and then be comforted. On the other hand, I can't remember the tiniest degree of harshness in her attitude.

I just loved her class. That was where I first learned to love solving problems. I can still remember the pleasure.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 20, 2012 12:20 PM

When I wrote this post (which was done hurriedly), I was very much aware that it would sound as though I thought shaming was a good idea.

I don't, really. I did resort to it occasionally with my boys, but only when they had really done something pretty bad. It was sort of the exclamation point of discipline techniques (Gosh - Mom's disappointed in me - the rule I broke must be pretty important to her).

I think my point was more the complete absence of what I view as pretty normal reactions to bad behavior from adults.

We were having a conversation with my in laws a while back and my mother in law was relating how she used to tease an elderly uncle who had this annoying habit of being maddeningly indirect when he wanted something. She would pretend not to know what he was trying to get her to do.

The upshot of this is that she got smacked, which was pretty common in their day when a kid was smarting off or was disrespectful to an adult. By the time I was growing up we were firmly in Dr. Spock land: spanking is bad and turns your kids into little psychopaths who will be unable to keep from spanking total strangers for no apparent reason due to the cumulative trauma, etc, ad nauseum. Kids of my generation were mostly spoken to very sharply when we talked back or were rude/disrespectful. Or you would be sent from the room.

I didn't tolerate rudeness or disrespect from my sons. That was probably my only hard and fast rule. I wasn't abusive, but I didn't put up with backtalk either.

It has really struck me lately that I haven't heard a parent or other adult demonstrate any anger (even justified anger) towards a child. Not even disapproval, really. It just seems a false sort of reaction, and not one likely to teach kids how non-family members are likely to view rude behavior.

Wrt school, I think my point was not that shaming is good, but more that it's not fatal. My goal with my sons was to be calm and reasonable most of the time. But occasionally, when they did something that was way over the line, I had no problem saying to them, "Being around other people is a privilege, not a right and your behavior demonstrates that you don't deserve that privilege at the moment." If they wanted to pitch a fit, that was fine with me but they did it in their rooms where no one else had to listen to them.

In general I think children learn better from a good example - if you lose it constantly, they learn that grownups don't have any self control. The key, I think, is balance and maybe that's what seems so odd to me - the lack of balance?

Posted by: Cass at June 20, 2012 12:44 PM

Feel free to tell me where I'm wrong.

Can't do it, sorry.

The way to properly motivate students was imparted at a programming class at Quantico.

Now, I knew my proposed solution was sub-standard, but it would have worked. Not scaled, but it was functional for the parameters of the problem.

Sgt Whatshisface made a quick trip to the instructor's lair. Brought back a giant red sharpie. My peers hooted and hollered: the giant red shaprie .. of Doom!

He flopped open the flowchart and wrote

W
R
O
N
G

In foot-high letters across the fan-fold.

Which was instructive without being humiliating.

I went back and did it the right way. Might even have learned something.

Posted by: Brian Dunbar at June 20, 2012 01:07 PM

Heh :)

A few years ago another Marine wife and I were mulling over the problem of family members who don't have well developed coping skills in place to deal with deployments/TAD/frequent moves, etc.

The military does so much more *for* families now than they did when we were starting out back in the Cenozoic Era, and *far* more than when our parents were starting out back in the Cretaceous Period. We have so much guidance and so many resources at our disposal... and yet so many families still struggle with the basics of day to day living.

At some point it occurred to me that the Marines know exactly how to train strong, independent Marines who overcome obstacles ... and then they proceed to do the exact opposite when trying to encourage the development of strong, independent Marine families. This is going to sound awful, but I sometimes think we're enabling passivity and dependence rather than teaching resourcefulness and a "bloom where you're planted" ethos where families take pride in and gain confidence from overcoming challenges.

re: the red sharpie of Doom. When the spousal unit was at Parris Island, the Lts. and Captains gave him a giant blue pencil at his change of command :p

Posted by: Cass at June 20, 2012 02:32 PM

The upshot of this is that she got smacked, which was pretty common in their day when a kid was smarting off or was disrespectful to an adult. By the time I was growing up we were firmly in Dr. Spock land: spanking is bad and turns your kids into little psychopaths who will be unable to keep from spanking total strangers for no apparent reason due to the cumulative trauma, etc, ad nauseum. Kids of my generation were mostly spoken to very sharply when we talked back or were rude/disrespectful. Or you would be sent from the room.

I don't say this to be hurtful or disrespectful, but I know for a fact that you're older than I am. And yet, I was totally spanked, and even slapped once. And I've managed to fail to be a abusive spouse or delinquent member of society. Clearly I'm doing something wrong.

But anyhow, what I'm saying is that if I'm younger than you, how'd I get the "spare the rod, spoil the child" parents and you missed it? Admittedly, you're just old enough to be my big sister, not my mother, and I suspect our parents are of an age (both my parents were born before US involvement in WWII).

And anyhow, I think that Dr. Spock nonsense was incredibly harmful. Pretty much like taking Dr. Phil as gospel would be today. When I hear how they're changing math to help make sure ALL the class "Gets it", I am left asking, 'if the old math got us to the moon, why do we seem to think it's not workable now?'

Posted by: MikeD at June 20, 2012 04:09 PM

I don't say this to be hurtful or disrespectful, but I know for a fact that you're older than I am. And yet, I was totally spanked, and even slapped once. And I've managed to fail to be a abusive spouse or delinquent member of society. Clearly I'm doing something wrong.

WHAP!!! (just kidding) I'm not touchy about my age :)

I was spanked some by my parents, but I know my Mom felt guilty about it when I pushed her too far. She shouldn't have - I needed a firm hand. My little brother never got spanked, but then he didn't push my parents' buttons like I did :p

I don't remember ever being slapped, though I certainly deserved it several times.

I spanked my boys - the oldest more than the youngest, but again the oldest was just like me.

The irony is that I raised my boys by Dr. Spock except for the spanking part. I must have had an older version b/c I remember his advice about nipping smartassery in the bud and followed it.

Posted by: Cass at June 20, 2012 04:33 PM

[my parents] would not have hesitated to let me know my behavior was unacceptable and disrespectful.

I never faced those questions when I was starting out in school. We were newly moved to DinkyTown, IA, when I was in first and second grade. The high school my oldest brother attended was across the playground from the grade school I was in those first two years. My father was dual-hatted as Superintendent of Schools in that town and the high school principle.

One morning at the start of the school year, I showed up in my first grade class missing my two front teeth, and the teacher asked me what happened to my teeth, expecting the stock answer of a 6-year-old. "My father knocked them out," I said. What I omitted to say was that those teeth had been hanging by threads (this much the teacher suspected, given my age), and the night before, I'd been lipping off (hard to believe, I know), so Dad cuffed me across my face, and those loose teeth went flying. (I did manage to find one of them and got my quarter.) A couple days after that, my oldest brother was changing clothes in the locker room after gym class (they did those back then), when a classmate noticed criss-cross scars on his back. Asked whence the scars, my brother said, "When Dad says something, he means it." That got around rapidly. What my brother neglected to say was the rest of the story, which had nothing to do with Dad's directness: my brother, playing tennis shirtless, had chased a lob into a rusty woven wire fence.

There was nothing I could do those two years that would have gotten me punished severely enough, or shamed strongly enough, for the tale to get back to my father the Superintendent of Schools.

Today, such smarting off would get my parents arrested.

I was...even slapped once.

The above notwithstanding, I was spanked when I needed it, too. The one time Mom tried to slap me, though, I just leisurely reached up and caught her hand before it could get to me and held it, watching her wiggle on the other end of her arm. The situation was so funny we both broke out laughing. But I got her point. And I didn't misbehave that way again. I found better ways to do what I'd been doing, without getting caught.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 20, 2012 05:26 PM

I'm told I was spanked. I don't remember it. I remember spanking my younger brothers and sister. They deny that this happened. Perhaps this is because the activity was spanking, not beating?

I don't see anything to correct, Cass. I do remember grading papers in the lab one day, and several students gasping when I dug out a red pen. They became very quiet, which was nice.

Posted by: htom at June 20, 2012 05:54 PM

Yanno with all this talk of spanking, I am surprised that Grim has been absent from the conversation.

Usually he can be relied upon to throw out random snark.

*sniff!*

Posted by: "Dad", Celebrity Non-Bling Tailmonger at June 20, 2012 06:40 PM

Totally agree - self esteem was earned, not given. By the time you get to college, the hardest courses where you learn the most were what delivered self esteem - you knew, you knew it. Vs. today's "Everybody gets a trophy" mentality. Moronic. Combine this with the fact that most parents don't place any bounds on their little angels behaviors and its toxic. I was always shocked at the park, when bigger kids would take toys (that weren't theirs) from littler kids with their parents watching. WTF, it's your job as a parent not to let that happen.

Posted by: Andrew at June 20, 2012 06:44 PM

The grownups used shaming techniques freely on us kids, when we'd done something shameful. I just don't recall it being used academically. Oh, if they thought we'd done something actually wrong they weren't shy about saying so, or about spanking either.

But even so, my own parents were somewhat less given to corporal punishment than the prior generation had been. My grandmother used a switch freely on my father and his siblings, though she was far from "beating" them in any sense I'd apply to the word. There was a line they couldn't cross, that's all. There was definitely a line my sisters and I couldn't cross, too, even if a spanking wasn't the most common remedy. I stare in wonder at kids throwing tantrums in public, with parents acting like they don't notice or care. Wouldn't have happened with my folks. They had no doubts about what their role was supposed to, or about their right to make judgments of that kind.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 20, 2012 06:56 PM

My grandmother used a switch freely....

I remember switches. Mom would send my next older brother or me--whomever had misbehaved--out to cut our own switches. The downside of that was that if we cut an inadequate switch, she'd use it, then tell Dad when he got home. He'd go cut his own and use that one.

It was a fine line we learned to discriminate.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 20, 2012 07:14 PM

Slapping story. I was maybe 14, and I was arguing with my mother. Now, it's important to know that my mother is a VERY small woman. She hovers right above the 5' mark. I however, was NOT very small. And we have very similar personalities, which made for some heated disagreements (that unsurprisingly, never ended in my favor... I was just too stubborn to realize it). Anyhow, I was looming over her, she was shaking her finger in my face, and finally decided she'd given me enough leeway, hauled back and slapped me. I fumed silently for perhaps 10 seconds and stormed off. To this day, she laughs and tells the story as "I realized, 'I just got away with it,' because he could have gone *WHOMP* and crushed me!" Not that she was in an ounce of danger. It never even occurred to me to strike my mother. I was just upset that she SLAPPED me. Which is funny in and of itself, because it's not like she hurt me physically, it was the shock of having been slapped when I'd never been slapped before.

We never had to get switches, but we DID have to go get the household wooden ruler when my mother was going to spank us. She learned that from her mother. It gave her a chance to cool off so the punishment wouldn't be out of anger, and allowed us to stew in the fact that we were going to get spanked (a clever psychological punishment itself). THe only danger was, in a house of four children, odds were someone had taken the ruler out for schoolwork and neglected to return it. That caused more than a bit of anxiety for the spankee, as we never were sure what she'd do if we came back without it.

Posted by: MikeD at June 21, 2012 08:55 AM

I remember trying the ruler (in my case it was a wooden cooking spoon) for many of the same reasons.

I spent quite a bit of time hitting the palm of my hand and even my own fanny with that dratted thing because my one fear was that I would inadvertently hurt them more than I intended to. I don't think the spoon lasted long - I ended up just sending them to their room to think about it and then we'd have a brief talk before they got spanked to explain why it was happening.

I didn't spank very often. With my oldest, it seemed like every 6 months or so he would gradually work his way up with a series of escalating offenses until he either got spanked or got put on restriction. Once that happened, I made sure to spend extra time with him afterwards and his behavior improved like magic... for about 5 1/2 months :p

My youngest just didn't push me that far, so he rarely got spanked. The few times he did, it was for losing his temper (he has a temper like his Dad but rarely lost it as a child. When he did, though, it was quite the spectacle. You just had to wait him out.)

My boys were so different. You try to be evenhanded with children but in reality their needs are so different that a one size fits all approach doesn't work too well. My oldest needed lots of attention. My youngest mostly needed space, but you had to watch him because he wouldn't come to you with problems and often there was no outward manifestation when he was troubled or sad or struggling with something.

I loved raising my kids. I learned more about human nature in those 20 or so years than I have the whole rest of my life dealing with adults.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 21, 2012 09:21 AM

"We never had to get switches, but we DID have to go get the household wooden ruler when my mother was going to spank us. She learned that from her mother. It gave her a chance to cool off so the punishment wouldn't be out of anger"...

I picked up on the same cool off and make the wee ones think about what's about to happen and why trick from my dad. I had an opportunity to chill and the misbehaving youngster had a good little while for reflection.

These events were almost always due to their exceeding the bounds of acceptable behavior towards their mother or another adult, teacher, etc.

Fortunately for all involved, I did not have to spank the young'uns very often. To cipher the total count for both of em would not require I take off my shoes. And as dad always said, it hurt him (and me too when my turn to be dad arrived) more than the recipient of the punishment.

Funny that... I can not recall the hurt from any fight I've ever had, except maybe the one that required having my left eye socket and surrounding face fixed, but boy can I recall the feeling of having to take the extraordinary step to bring corporal punishment to the young'uns.

And I too recall the shaming technique that was a societal norm somewhere around a half century ago. Looking around today and knowing that Shame is on the endangered, if not extinct list, I'd have to say Shame served a worthwhile function.

Posted by: bthun at June 21, 2012 09:23 AM

Wouldn't have happened with my folks. They had no doubts about what their role was supposed to, or about their right to make judgments of that kind.

I think this is at the heart of my discomfort with a lot of parents I see these days - they seem to view their very legitimate authority as parents as something wrong or bad.

I remember a neighbor in Pensacola whose teen was foul mouthed and surly and was swearing (not just garden variety swearing but pretty filthy stuff) around our toddlers. I went down to talk with her and she proceeded to lecture me about how what kids really need is a friend, not a parent or authority figure.

Her son was one of the unhappiest/angriest kids I've ever seen. He was out of control emotionally and very negative. I thought at the time that what that boy really needed was a father to show him how to control his emotions and respect limits. Of course there were few fathers or intact families in that neighborhood, and a lot of very messed up girls and angry, confused boys.

Sad.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 21, 2012 09:26 AM

"I learned more about human nature in those 20 or so years than I have the whole rest of my life dealing with adults."

Amen!

Posted by: bthun at June 21, 2012 09:32 AM

I was thinking about shame the other day. Here's another outdated concept.

I remember when my boys were teens and starting to spend more and more time out of the home. One of them did something and during The Talk I said that when they left our home, they represented not only themselves but also our family and good name.

I told them that one of the reasons I respected their Dad so much (and why I married him) is that I had utter faith in his integrity. I knew he would never bring shame or disgrace on me or our children. And I told them that I expected them to think not only about personal consequences, but also of our good family name and reputation, built by their father and grandparents. A good reputation is like money in the bank, even these days.

The idea that we have a duty to others in our family seems to be almost quaint, but I was always very conscious in dealing with Marines and their families that whatever I did and said reflected on my husband too. So I had to consider not just my values and opinions, but also take his standards (which do differ from mine in some respects) into account.

To me, this is part of socializing kids to form associations and respect group norms. I also taught them that their own values were important, and when there was a conflict they should aim for the higher of the two standards (hopefully, their own values).

Again, balance.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 21, 2012 09:33 AM

"I told them that one of the reasons I respected their Dad so much (and why I married him) is that I had utter faith in his integrity. I knew he would never bring shame or disgrace on me or our children."

I pity the sad assembly of motley rabble who truly believe that notion is outdated.

What moderates their behavior? What defines their boundaries? Who pays their bail-bond?

Posted by: bthun at June 21, 2012 09:46 AM

Grim writes a lot about the concept of frith. People need something larger than themselves to give their lives meaning, purpose, and a framework for living.

My disquiet with feminism is mostly due to the undeniable fact that for most of history, women have been the glue that ties families together. If we split our attention between family and work, those ties do weaken. I can see this when trying to plan a family retreat - we have to deal with two sets of work schedules and all the structured activities kids are enrolled in, at least partly because many of their Moms work. It's a scheduling nightmare.

And it's still important.

On the other hand, when I look at our extended family I see thriving, healthy families with great parents and happy kids. So clearly, having women not confined to the home has not destroyed them. I attribute a lot of this to the foundation our parents and grandparents laid for us. Both my grandmoms worked, oddly enough, and both were college educated.

I think having choices makes life harder and more complicated, but also so much richer and more interesting. But I do worry sometimes that we're losing sight of the forest for the trees.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 21, 2012 10:12 AM

When my sister was still sending her kids to public school, one day there was a self-esteem-building video on the general theme "you are wonderful." The 9-year-old came home and asked, "Mom, how do they know I'm wonderful? Those people that made the video never even met me!"



My most recent post: wolf among wolves

Posted by: david foster at June 21, 2012 11:04 AM

The home has to be a high priority. For a long time, the rough rule in many families was that mom made the home, and dad could largely ignore it. Now mom and dad in healthy families often share that task more evenly. But when neither mom nor dad makes it a high priority, you get one messed up set of kids. The work's got to get done somehow.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 21, 2012 11:12 AM

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