When I was a little kid in school back in the middle 40s, I can remember being rewarded for doing good work. I loved it when the teacher stuck a gold star on my paper or workbook, and it made me want to do even better.
I also remember that we had reading groups, and they were divided according to ability. If you were in a lower group and your reading improved, you’d get moved to a higher one.
But over the years I started to notice a change in this merit-for-excellence system. Teachers started giving poor performers more attention, and even rewards, so they wouldn’t feel bad about themselves. I thought, why should an under-achiever get a reward? It didn’t make sense to me. Encouraging and helping someone do better is one thing, but I came to believe over the years that stroking the underdog doesn’t help anyone.
I remember a situation many years later when I started to attend the workshops of a well-known jazz pianist in New York. He would sit at a grand piano in a big loft and young musicians — mostly pianists — would crowd around him at tables, waiting eagerly for their chance to perform. After each one finished, he would critique them in front of the audience.
After I’d gone a few times I started to notice a pattern. He would be kind and complimentary to the mediocre ones and critical, sometimes verging on harsh and cruel, to the really talented, accomplished ones. I questioned some of the musicians about it, and they said he did this to encourage the not-so-good ones and to make sure the really good ones wouldn’t get a swelled head and would work harder.
I just don’t get that. Not that I think he should have trashed the struggling ones, but there was certainly no reason to be so hard on the ones who obviously had talent and had worked hard to develop it. I stopped going to the workshop. It all just felt too personal. Some people became his “pets” (usually the not-so-good ones) and that really bothered me.
So today when I see, for example, a group of children competing in some kind of game, and when it’s done the teacher or adult in charge gives all the kids a prize so no one’s feelings will be hurt, I really think that’s a mistake. It gives kids the idea that they don’t have to work hard to get a reward, and breeds complacency and mediocrity.
Kids who are having a hard time need a helping hand to get better, maybe to change their habits so they can develop their abilities and talents. I say this because I don’t really believe there’s any such thing as a “dumb” kid, or one that has no special abilities and talents. But the way to discover these abilities is to help the kid learn how to bring them out, not by stroking him or her when they’re not even trying. By doing this, underdogs will always be underdogs, because they’ve learned that it’s rewarding.
What do you think?