BEUSCHEL: Teach kids how to ask themselves the tough questions

The day of hearts and flowers has passed. Leftover chocolates, printed candy hearts and valentines received from loved ones may still be sitting around homes and classrooms.
Feb 20, 2014

The day so-focused on feelings has come and gone, but feelings remain a part of our daily lives.

Over the years, especially in education, there seems to be a drift to being more concerned about children’s feelings than their ability to receive honest criticism about their academic performance. As I work with children at school, many times I read their report cards to get an idea about how school is going for them. Not only do I look at their grades, but I read the teacher comments hoping for a more in-depth view of them as individuals.

After reading one of my teacher’s comments on a student’s report card, I complimented the teacher for putting remarks of substance on the card rather than fluffy, feel-good comments. I can’t get much of a read-out of comments like “keep up the good work” or “a joy to have in class” or “continue to read over the summer.”

I’m helped much more in understanding the child when there are comments like “failure to complete daily work is reflected in your grades” or “lack of knowledge of multiplication tables is impacting your math test scores” or “completing daily reading logs would help you reach grade-level reading.”

Even comments like, “Your science project showed you put in lots of effort to make it complete” or, “You do a great job of organized your desk and locker” or,  “You come to class prepared to work every day” would be helpful. Those kind of comments let me know more readily what kind of student I am working with. More importantly, it would be helpful to a concerned parent who may not get all the edu-jargon that is displayed on the report cards. 

Herein lies the dilemma. Is the parent willing to hear more direct comments about their child’s performance or not? Is the child ready to hear and benefit from constructive criticism? Right now, I would lean in the direction of saying no to both.

Somewhere along the line in our society, we began drifting toward that feel-good mentality, which I feel is counterproductive to raising people who can be successful in today’s world. Self-esteems have been artificially inflated with “fluffy praise” and meaningless generalities. 

I am in full agreement with Nathan Levy’s concept of the "Jesse James theory.” We rob children of their ability to develop positive self-esteem by pumping them up with praise that is not based on a demonstrated behavior of the child’s.

We continue in this direction when we hold up the high school or college diploma as the end-all of end-alls. There are lots of people out there with all sorts of degrees; some are unemployable or in the legal system or in the welfare system. I think we have focused too much on those goals rather than on the characteristics of individuals who will be able to put those degrees to use. It is not the degree but the person behind it who is the contributor to society that we need to develop.

Being able to accept constructive criticism should be a skill developed over time. Criticism if honest and purposeful should help to point the individual in the direction of continuous self-improvement. In most employment situations, there is some kind of ongoing evaluation starting with a probation period on throughout employment leading to pay increases or promotions. This is reality. Performance is evaluated for continued employment and advancement.

So, if we continue to overprotect feelings of the individual, whether child or adult, we underdevelop their ability to benefit from constructive criticism. We need to prepare them for the inevitable process of critical analysis of their performance. The people out there that would offer up that type of criticism will not be concerned about feelings being hurt. They will be trying to choose, among hundreds of applicants for college programs or employment, the one right person to make a perfect fit. 

I am not saying that feelings don’t matter. They do. But how much better would it “feel” to receive the place on a team, the letter acceptance from a college or the offer of a employment position based on the critical decision of someone’s evaluation deeming you the best person for it?

Or not! What happens when the decision does not go in your favor? Have we trained people to step back and look at why that opportunity or grade or place on a team was not given? This is where the action is. This is where people continue to grow and learn. 

A person needs to be comfortable enough with receiving honest criticism to ask those questions: “What could I have done differently?” “What areas do I need to improve on?” “What additional skills do I need?”

Maybe those questions could go on some of those little candy hearts next year.

— By Janice Beuschel, Tribune community columnist

Comments

Former Grandhavenite

It seems like generally when we hear about self esteem or somebody with "self esteem issues" the problem is presented in terms of the person not having enough self esteem. The assumption is that all people should have a high level of self esteem and we should work to increase it at all times.

On the contrary, a lot of problems stem from somebody having way too much self esteem. Some of the most unpleasant folks I've met have extremely high levels of self esteem. I think we'd be doing kids a service with a more balanced presentation of the concept of self esteem.

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