Happiness #3: Reactions

Since posting my 2-part piece on happiness, two newspapers have picked it up: The Portland Press Herald and The Times-Record (Bath-Brunswick).  Reactions have been mostly positive, but one letter to the PPH wanted to know why I believe — in his eyes, anyway — that we cannot have parental attunement AND real expectation.  My response: Not only is it possible… it’s critical.  The trouble is, too often these days we don’t.

A woman from Harpswell sent me this email: “Dear Mr. Gauld, I really appreciate your essay about happiness in Friday’s TIMES RECORD, and your courage to admit this emperor has no clothes. Teachers used to encourage students’ self-esteem for their achievements, not just for being themselves; but as parents became full-time protectors they’ve slathered on self-esteem unconditionally, like hand sanitizer.”

My response:
Thanks for sharing your reactions.  (Love the “hand sanitizer” analogy!)  I’ve come to believe that we are great “pendulum swingers” in this country.  A generation or so ago, parents were not involved enough; today they’re (OK… “we’re!”) too involved.  We need to balance off attunement with expectation and we’d have a much better chance of doing just that, I think, if we could switch our emphasis from aptitude to attitude, from ability to effort, and from talent to character.

Instead, right now, our society is focused on kids’ test-taking abilities and it is causing all kinds of problems:

–    Teachers teaching to (and students limiting their learning to) “the test;”
–    A resulting anxiety that actually inhibits genuine curiosity;
–    Parents focused on self-esteem rather than honest effort;
–    Increased cheating (and not just by the kids as the current disgrace in Atlanta shows).

The cult of self-esteem is fueled by the flawed assumption that if kids feel good about themselves, they’ll do good things.  Thirty-five years of teaching have convinced me that the opposite is true: If kids do good things they’ll feel good about themselves.  At the end of the day, kids have direct control over their attitudes, abilities, and character.  Their parents and teachers need to demand that they strive to exhibit that control.

When I asked her permssion to use her email on my blog, she replied: “Attunement with expectation, exactly! Yes, you can use my email. I hope your efforts with parents will finally nudge the pendulum the other way. It’s been an awfully long swing.”

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld