Stroking the underdog

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?



Filed under education, individuality, my history

7 responses to “Stroking the underdog

  1. Rhonda Key Youngblood

    I HATE labels, but relatively speaking, some kids do have what are referred to as “special needs.” And you would be surprised at how much continuous reinforcement they need in order to just be “mediocre.” However, I’m thinking we just continue to encourage everyone to be the best they can, and drop the “canned” education. Because we are so diverse and varied in our strengths, talents, etc., and because we are “good” at something is not necessarily because we worked so hard at it. We all know some who work like crazy at something to, again, only arrive at “mediocre.” This is worth pondering. Tx for the strrrrrretchhhhhhh!

  2. Yes, what I’m getting at here is that kids (and people in general) need to be Yes, what I’m getting at here is that kids (and people in general) need to be treated as individuals. The term “special needs” is a euphemism, but it still carries a stigma. The real point, as you say, is to help everyone do the best they can, even if that best is viewed as “mediocre” by others. Everyone has something they love to do and are able to do.

  3. Chip Deffaa

    Amy, you’ve written something that’s been on my mind a lot, for a long time. I see a lot of this, alas. I worry about the trend towards mediocrity in our country. And I’m glad you wrote this.

    • Thanks, Chip…as you can see, I’ve been concerned about this for a long time, too. I’ve seen little hints here and there that it’s starting to change, but much more is needed…

  4. I understand this all too well, and i wonder why it’s so too. I think because times are changing and people assume it’s best to praise the “underdog or underachiever” so that they don’t dwell on being scolded or the rejection so much…I still don’t know why you would be tough on someon who is doing well, perhaps to get them to work harder, or so it doesn’t go to their heads…great post!!!

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