Political Mercury

July 14, 2011 |

by Douglas Burns


Don't turn your kid into a teacup


"Coach, how ya doing?"

"Got time for lunch?"


So went my conversation the other day with Bill Baddeley, a teacher and coach and one of my favorite people.

He's optimistic, enthusiastic and wise enough to have cut me from the Carroll High Tiger varsity basketball team 26 years ago.

If Baddeley were honest, here's how the post-game interviews should have gone during my brief career on the Tiger junior-varsity squad in the mid-1980s:

Sports writer: "What did you think of Doug Burns' execution on the floor tonight?"

Coach: "I'm for it."

As a genuine Iowan (John Wayne is from Winterset not Waterloo, Mrs. Bachmann), I spent days and nights on driveway basketball courts, shooting free throws or playing endless pickup games. As a grade-schooler, I even fashioned a door-mounted indoor basketball hoop out of a wire coat hanger and used a rolled-up collection of socks as a makeshift ball.

I loved the game. But in my teen years, I didn't have the physical gifts to match my passion. There are people with Type 2 diabetes who have better verticals. I had no business representing a high school on the court, so an important lesson arrived early: Just because you love something and work hard at it doesn't mean you'll be good.

When I was cut, my family didn't sue the school or plead with a board member for reinstatement or lead a charge to oust the coach or cry over the phone to the newspaper's sports editor.

"Get on with it, Burns," Mr. Jim Knott, our beloved humanities and speech teacher, told me.

Getting cut from that basketball team was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It taught me about earned self-esteem, genuine achievement.

But in that era, we had to take ownership of failures. We had to feel the pain. We had no Internet or cell phones, but we weren't cocooned from the realities of American capitalism, a results-oriented world of winners and losers that doesn't give a Tin Lizzie about self-esteem.

How the world has changed.

The July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine carries a compelling cover story entitled "How the cult of self-esteem is ruining our kids."

It is must-reading for parents, and author Lori Gottlied is spot-on.

The results are disastrous for these kids when they enter the workforce, the real world.

Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA, says many parents will do anything to prevent their kids from experiencing any bit of anxiety or discomfort or failure.

This sort of helicopter parenting (hovering protectively over one's kids) is creating a new breed of college freshmen school deans term "teacups" — young people who are so fragile they break down anytime something doesn't go their way.

"Well-intentioned parents have been metabolizing their anxiety for them their entire childhoods so they don't know how to deal with it when they grow up," Mogel says in the magazine article.

Some parents have told me in recent years of a phenomenon that results from a single-mindedness on children. Couples who build their lives entirely around their kids' activities, to the exclusion of friends and even their own relationships, often wind up divorced and lonely as they hit the empty-nest stage.

"Many of us today don't really want our kids to leave because we rely on them in various ways to fill the emotional holes in our own lives," writes Gottlieb.

Colleges are using extreme measures to deal with this as parents are literally lingering around their kids in dorms. The University of Vermont has even hired "parent bouncers" to move mommy and daddy out of the scene at freshman orientation and other ceremonies.

The main thrust of what Gottlieb is addressing is expressed in this one sentence: All failures for kids are reframed by too many parents as "good tries."

When parents provide compliments — admittedly lovingly and heartfelt — for minor achievements or routine accomplishments, kids begin to develop outsized senses of themselves, their places in the world.

"People who feel like they're unusually special end up alienating those around them," says Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University professor, in The Atlantic article. "They grew up in a culture where everyone gets a trophy just for participating, which is ludicrous and makes no sense when you apply it to actual sports games or work performance. Who would watch an NBA game with no winners or losers?" CV


Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.