Please, No Truth Bombs… When Did Criticising Our Kids Become So Taboo?

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Disclaimer: Yes, there are f-bombs in here. I’ve had enough ad hoc lectures about my use of language this week, so if that’s not your thing let’s hug it out and say our farewells. 

*****

School “open days”… They’re up there with going to the dry cleaners, waiting for a prescription on pension day or shopping for a new toaster – all necessary yet slightly dull chores that you tend to coast through on autopilot whilst rocking an artificial expression of serenity that politely conceals your boredom.

I was in the classroom today, looking through my son’s work books and attempting to decipher the drunken hieroglyphics that pass for six year-old handwriting. My kid is in Year One, so think pages and pages of laboured compositions like “On the weekend I played Lego and got to level 14 in Monster Legends on the iPad”.

(Honestly, read through 35 straight pages of that shit and you’ll cringe at how largely the iPad features in your kid’s life, like you never actually go anywhere or do anything except gaffa tape his face to an internet-enabled device all weekend).

Anyway, while all this was happening I noticed how dodgy his handwriting was. In between mouthing the obligatory “oohs” and vaguely admiring “aahs” all I could think was: “Jesus, this is messy as fuck. What the hell, kid?”

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My son stepped out to get something from his bag so I took the opportunity to sidle over to my friend and mutter “Can I take a quick look at your daughter’s book? A’s writing is terrible…”

And then, faster than you could say “THERE’S A PARENT HERE WHO IS MILDLY DISAPPROVING OF THEIR CHILD!!” (that’s kind of long but you get my point), one of his teachers cut me off with this jaunty corrective:

“We don’t say their work is terrible, we say that it can be improved and that with a little bit of effort blah blah blah hordes of resplendent silver unicorns will descend from the clouds to gently coax their pencil into perfectly formed fonts, before pooping out an entire roll of smiley-face reward stickers and locking horns in a group hug, so these kids always know that their mediocre attempts at doing totally average things are truly validated from the heart.”

Or something…

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To be honest, I’d kind of lost track about halfway through, because I was too busy processing the shock of realising that my son’s teacher was schooling me for failing to reframe my son’s shithouse attempts at handwriting in a positive enough light.

I mean, FFS I’d waited for my son to be out of the room before I made the comment and I’d merely said that his handwriting was “terrible”. Because it WAS terrible. It was rushed and careless. Illegible.

I didn’t say that my six year old was a hopeless loser who was destined to spend the rest of his life drinking away the pain of failed spelling bees. Nor did I say that his hideous handwriting was a stain on our family’s honour, and that my eternal soul would be wearing the shame of it for several millennia. I simply made an offhand comment to the effect that it looked like he was putting in a less-than-stellar effort. And he wasn’t even there to hear it.

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I know what positive reframing is and – contrary to what my flair for snark might suggest – I do it all the time with my children. I think it’s super-important, but I save that shit for when they are actually within earshot because frankly, it’s exhausting being the conjurer of butterflies and rainbows all the fucking time.

For the record, this is not a criticism of his teacher, who is fantastic. This is more a muddled reflection on how much the culture of childrearing has changed since our generation, when you could be whacked with a wooden cane on the whim of a sadistic principal or publically shamed for having a learning disability. Stop crying you pissweak little sissy, a bit of pain and humiliation never hurt anybody….

Things have – thankfully – swung the other way but sometimes I wonder whether they’ve swung too far? When did it become taboo to express mild disappointment in your children when you know they can do better? Or to offer a less-than-glowing but realistic appraisal of their efforts? In an age where everyone gets a trophy and class debates no longer have winners or losers, when do kids get to experience icky feelings like disappointment, ambivalence, defeat, failure and frustration?

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The bottom line is that my son is capable of better work. I know it. He knows it. His teachers know it. If his work is not up to par it’s generally because he is being careless, silly, lazy or allowing himself to be distracted by the hilarity of his own Category 5 farts, and six months of back-patting and positive spin hasn’t motivated him to do much better.

Do we really place such little faith in the resilience of our children that mildly reproachful comments are off limits now? Surely we do our kids a disservice by holding back on the occasional truth bomb, forever succumbing to our guilt-driven need to lace everything in a sickly sweet coating of confected positivity.

I’m not advocating that we go back to punitive discipline. I mean, it’s a fucking miracle that most of us survived our childhoods to emerge as relatively well-functioning adults, given the previous generation’s penchant for corporal punishment and public shaming. I’m more than happy to keep all of that in the bin where it belongs, but a little bit of hard-nosed pragmatism to balance out all the happy clappy glitter shit would be nice too.

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At the very least, we should be able to call our kids out on their crap and demand more from them when they are letting themselves down, without this stifling requirement to always sugar coat everything.

Sometimes we need to be free to say:

Mate, you’re taking the piss. I know you can do better than that and I expect you to do better than that. Sort your fucking shit out.

Of course, I’m paraphrasing here… I would never say that to an actual child. This would be processed through a sophisticated “Things You’re Allowed To Say To Kids in the New Millennium” translation device to remove all the “fucks” and “shits” and whatnot, but the basic message remains the same: it’s not good enough and you know it.

So, in the end that’s exactly what I said:

Mate, this is too messy. I can’t read it, and neither can you. You need to do better.

His sheepish smile made it very clear that he understood. And that he agreed. Sometimes kids just need to hear it straight, without all the bullshit weasel words and ego stroking and endless reassuring. Somewhere in the world a resplendent silver unicorn just died a little inside, but my son came through it all just fine.

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68 thoughts on “Please, No Truth Bombs… When Did Criticising Our Kids Become So Taboo?

  1. Agree 100%!! I definitely things have gone too soft and cuddly… encouragement and support is great, but it needs to be tempered with a serving of cold hard reality. Life isn’t fair, and schools making out that “everyone’s a winner” are really just setting up kids to become disappointed and disgruntled adults. If kids learn what it feels like to fail or lose, they’re more likely to try harder next time.

    • Mate, this is so true. I think as parents of this age we are pretty well placed to grasp this. We got our fair share of reality checks growing up, and we know when it crosses the line. And now we have all that positive shit in our parenting arsenal as well. We got this.

  2. I am in total agreement with you. Actually, our son’s teacher told us his handwriting was terrible. Ok, so she said he needs to have more pride in the presentation of his work. To which I said, what do you mean, precisely? Then she said, we’ll his handwriting is messy. She’s right, now we’re working on it. Much easier if they just tell it like it is!

  3. Fuck yeah. FUCK. YEAH. I had a parent interview last term, and the teacher says: “Your son is very patient.” And I cracked up, and said, “Oh I’m sorry, I think you’ve got my kid mixed up with someone else.” I got THE LOOK.

    In other news, my kid was really shit at football on the weekend. He’s normally really good, but on this occasion he was really shit. He asked me for a score out of 10, and I said 7, which I thought was FUCKING generous. And he cried and cried. Can’t win.

  4. I almost used that same stock image of the woman wondering why the fuck she’s wearing such an enormous pearl necklace, but the pearl necklace bit gave me the super immature giggles so I decided against.

    Now, on to the subject matter. This is up there with meaningless participation awards, IMO. It’s ok to tell a kid that they need to pick up their game in actual words. How else will they know, if it’s all fluff? If it helps, my kid’s art teacher was fluffing about, basically trying to tell me my kid is slow to finish crap. I stopped her and a
    Said we understood, that C’s spirit animal was the sloth. Cue look of amused horror from the teacher (and giggling and nodding from C herself!).

    • Yep – every week at soccer they hand out a trophy to someone at random (it gets recycled, so not as bad as it sounds). Then, when the kids actually GET a trophy at the end of the year they’re all like totally non-plussed about it.

  5. I was scolded by my twins kindy teacher because I told my son his drawing was “great”. Apparently that wasn’t specific enough praise and I needed to go into more detail about what exactly was great about it. FML!

  6. When Dyllan was having issues at the start of the year, most of which I found out in a letter to his pediatrician, the principal said they didn’t like to just give negative feedback. I was gobsmacked and said ‘I’m pretty sure him failing is feedback that I need to know!’

  7. Somewhere in the world a resplendent silver unicorn just died a little on the inside? Sweetie, that unicorn just glowed enough to blind the sun.

  8. Praise be the Unicorn and useless Glitter Hunter! So tired of the positive affirmations: I just want to know where she’s at with her reading, how often she fucks around in class and why her handwriting is so bad? What’s with this shit house handwriting??? All feelings need to be felt, not just the good ones. Isn’t that what “Joy” or that latest kids and they’re feelings movie was all about?

    • Absolutely! I also fear that teachers are a bit caught between a rock and a hard place with parents who don’t want to hear hoe turdlike their little preciouses can be… Could not pay me enough to be a teacher these days, I swear. Hats off to the poor suckers.

  9. Kids do need to hear it straight. I’m all for positive encouragement but they also need to build some resilience. There was a competition in the library at school last week and Miss T said she wanted to enter – “I don’t want to win Mummy because if I lose in the first round I get a Freddo Frog and I want the Freddo Frog!” I know that it’s not all about winning but I’m not sure that Freddos for all is the right way to go about things?!

  10. My boy is the same with his work and when he tries it’s very obvious. However his teacher is still a little bit is the old school and doesn’t water things down too much. I agree that kids are much more resilient than we give them credit for but if we keep bubble wrapping everything that resilience will fade.

  11. OMG finally someone who will call it like she sees it and realises that her child isn’t the bees knees at everything they do. PC has gone so far to the other side it’s ridiculous. Good on you !!!!

    • Oh mate, I am very aware of my kids shortcomings but I also know a lot of parents who are blind to theirs. My kids are like everyone else – awesome, complicated, flawed, weird, normal. And, like everyone else they have their good days and their bad days. I think it’s important to have realistic expectations, and not place them on a pedestal. We can love our kids without worshipping them as little gods.

  12. GUH – it’s probably because she felt offended because she felt you were critising her teaching, maybe, I know you weren’t but she might have got her back up! I love this post so much. As an aside, it was my son’s thing yesterday too and we didn’t go because I’m shit like that, in my defense I did have to take my kids to drama…. go you for keeping them honest! xx

    • Yeah, in hindsight it may have been a defensive response from her, which is more than fair. I know that teachers cop a lot of criticism from parents these days – and a lot of it is unfair. That’s actually a really good point and I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective.

    • Honestly, I think it’s the best way to be. People who aren’t honest with their kids are the ones who get embarrassed by them when they go on talent shows 10 years later. Because they suck. LOL.

  13. Love this! I think we mollycoddle our kids too much these days. A desire to be better is also a great attribute but will we have that desire if we aren’t told straight we need to improve? I’m not sure. I think with the current feedback model what kids often hear is “good enough” when what we mean is “improvement needed” so it is up to us to be clearer about that.

    • Yes! That is absolutely spot on. Kids aren’t always great at subtext because hey – they’re kids! So when we’re framing everything with praise they are generally going to take that at face value, and not see the need for improvement.

  14. A world of yes. My daughter isn’t at school yet but I am not looking forward to the whole “everyone gets a ribbon at sports day” and nobody actually winning anything. I sucked at sports and maths but you better believe I was the school champion at the spelling game and nobody can take that away from me. I’m all for being supporting and encouraging but radical re-glossing is not cool.

    • Oh god seriously, I HATE that crap. You are spot on in that the “prizes for everyone” mentality diminishes the actual achievements of kids who are especially talented in certain areas. Like you, I was shithouse at sport but good academically. It was (and to some extent) is still a big part of who I am and something that I am kind of proud of when I look back. Why take that away from kids? It’s so weird.

  15. Amen! My boy’s handwriting is terrible, and probably for the very same reasons as your son’s. There are many much more interesting things to be doing than writing, so you might as well get it done as quickly as possible. But I say the same thing as you. You can do better. You should do better. Is it wrong to ask your kids to be the best version of themselves that they can be?

    • Not in my books it isn’t. It’s not like we’re standing over them with a can and rapping them on the knuckles, is it? Sometimes negative feedback is necessary, and as long as it’s done constructively and without shaming them I don’t see the problem. Not everything we do in life is worthy of a gold star.

  16. Here here! I totally applaud this. What about schools that don’t give out place ribbons at aths carnivals for fear of hurting the kids feelings; or dropping the A – F letter grade system and replacing it with jargon because ‘fail’ is too tough on the kids??? The list goes on. I hope my kids can feel challenged and disappointment under my supervision, where I can teach them to put their chin up and bat on. What implications does this have for our adults of the future?

    • OMG THIS. My kids report has this bullshit jargon that means NOTHING. I am so with you on this and I think that in time we will swing back to a bit of moderation on this issue. We are so scared of failure and making mistakes, and yet they so much to teach us. How to deal with disappointment, how to get back up, how to keep moving forward etc So important for our kids to have the opportunities to deal with this.

  17. The hide!!!save the schooling for the kids, Teacher Man.

    PS – my son’s handwriting looks like a swarm of ants with diarrhoea held their annual general meeting right there on the page until a bomb exploded. I tell him it’s terrible all the time and wish him well during his medical degree.

  18. I must admit I do agree with you Zilla…but if I put my teacher hat on, we quite often feel like we’re walking on egg shells with some parents and are worried about saying things that may offend. The times have definitely changed since we were at school, and the kids are coddled a bit!

    • Yes and absolutely this – in reflection that is actually something I wish I had added to this piece because I talk to other parents all the time and I see the bind that teachers are in. It’s so different from our day, where our parents would always back the teacher up, and yet these days I see so many parents who undermine teachers or refuse to accept that there might be issues with their child. The first response for a lot of people seems to be offence, denial and then to argue. Personally, if a teacher is telling me that something needs addressing with my child then damn right I am going to believe them. I’ve actually heard parents say that teachers “have it in for their kids”. Really? You really think that teachers have the time or motivation to target your kid for special attention. Surely they have enough ACTUAL issues to deal with, and not be fabricating shit about your kid. Honestly, some parents make me shake my head. The lengths they will go to to justify or minimise their kids behaviour – or blame someone else.

  19. Our little guy needs to pick up his game and I tell him so. He really does have learning difficulties with his reading but I still tell him that he needs to practise and put in the effort and when he’s writing I’ll say ‘make it neat, take your time’ and when it’s messy I’ll say ‘that’s too hard to read’ and make him rub it out and rewrite it. And when he won’t get off the bloody IPAD and do some work I’ll call him out for being lazy and never listening to me. My consolation is that his handwriting is better than his reading. So yes – kids to know it straight.

    • Yes, I do think that straight talking is good for kids because they generally take things at face value. No point over-complicating your feedback with unnecessary fluff – honest, direct feedback is the best way forward.

  20. So, saying, “It looks like a chicken just scratched across the paper” is not appropriate? If a child is capable of better they should be encouraged to do better. Mind you in a couple of years he’ll be typing all those essays. It’s funny because I always wonder about the parents of some boys who insist they did nothing on the weekend except play video games. How do you get the gaffer tape off?

  21. Yeh I hear you. At a meeting with the principal about a drastic drop in performance we were told that STANDARD is now the new good. I fail to see the excitement in mediocre.

  22. Yes! I can see this happening in my future. Ari’s kindy teacher is a say it how it is kinda woman but also rolls with it. You want to play Ghostbusters, grab a tissue box gun and go nuts, ninja turtles? Go nuts.
    The kids are supposed to “sign in” each day like the parents do except Ari has better things to do… and just quietly, I need to pull my finger out because frankly so do I! 😳 What hope… poor kid.

  23. I have lots of respect for the work teachers do, but the more time I spend as a school-parent, the more I am learning that I can’t do anything right and every quirk my children display is basically my fault, apparently. I’m starting to take it on the chin rather than cry into my post-drop-off coffee! BUT I must say our school did offer a parenting talk recently that lectured against ‘superlatives’. The message was basically ‘don’t say it’s awesome unless it’s awesome’. If everything is awesome (as it were) they have nothing to aspire to!

  24. I agree with being realistic – hopefully we know what our kids are capable of, and most of us are looking for effort to be made (although not everyone – so it is tricky for teachers, I agree). I hate even more the trend to continue this approach to avoiding conflict (or improvement, actually) into adulthood (ie. the training I received in the past for performance reviews and ‘the feedback sandwich’.) Everyone can see through the compliment at the start and the end, and they focus on the critique. Not fooling anyone … same as kids with the ‘everyone gets a ribbon’ or ‘everyone gets a prize with pass the parcel. Might as well get to the point, in a caring way, rather than skirt around the issue.

  25. This post is spot-on! The ‘everyone’s a winner’ mentality drives me up the wall! I think it also goes up the food chain and you have a culture of adults unable to take constructive criticisms or even (god-forbid!) minor corrections. Letting someone know there’s a spelling error in their work is now “grammar shaming”. I despair for the collective dumbing-down of our society as a result…

  26. As an ex-teacher, I couldn’t agree with you more. If only more folks (and teachers for that matter) would tell kids like it is…

  27. Oh god my kids needed the I’m crap to improve but the teachers wouldn’t do it at all for fear of offending. Like hell it would offend just certain little snowflakes it would and their parents I shit you not.
    This ribbon or award bollocks would piss me right off too what’s wrong with winning and losing for fuck sake. In the adult world it’s all about that winning and losing.

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