George Will is on a roll this week: this time with an op-ed in the Washington Post
. Today his theme is one close to my heart: obsessive, hovering parents terrified that some freakish accident or stray step away from their carefully cultivated plans (a.k.a., "life") will torment little Johnny just enough to make him (gasp!) doubt himself
. And we all know that no one--I repeat, NO ONE--should ever dare to doubt himself in this modern world where "self-esteem" is the key to what we foolishly call "happiness." Moreover, we've given self-esteem an almost mystical power over our lives. Why, if one doubts himself he might . . . no, I don't dare even to speak the words . . . well, dash it! I must speak them: he might . . . he might fail
. And then, by God, the earth really will shift off its axis--even without the assistance of an earthquake in the southern hemisphere!
Will, never to be duped by the alleged good motives of unbalanced and unhinged human beings now bathed in self-righteous and sticky-sweet-earnest "sincerity," quite rightly offers this gem as a rebuttal: "Children incessantly praised for their intelligence (often by parents
who are really praising themselves
) often underrate the importance of
effort." [Emphasis mine.]
What these kids really need to help them achieve, Will insists (this time via yet another book
to be added to my Amazon wish list) is actually pretty simple: bed-time and discipline. They need bed-time and discipline for real
--and not like they need that proverbial hole in their heads--because, in fact, they've already got
that hole in their heads. (You've always suspected it . . . now here's the scientific proof!) The neurons and circuitry of the human brain are not completely "wired" until a person reaches something like the age of 21. (Are you listening to that, young Ashbrooks?) And so , the more you learn in a day, the more you need sleep to help it "sink in," so to speak. Your grandmother, it turns out, was absolutely correct when she counseled you to, "Get a good night's sleep." This is why cramming (though sometimes, no doubt, absolutely necessary) is much less effective than the slower route to knowledge. We have to marinate in things in order, really, to make them a part of ourselves. All acquisition of anything really worth having requires a sustained and steady effort.
Recently, we watched the movie Rudy
with our kids. I absolutely loved that movie (based on a true story
) because it is about a very average kid (in size, in athletic ability, and in academics) who sets for himself the seeming impossible goal of attending Notre Dame and of playing on the varsity football team. It's not some Cinderella story about his self-esteem or some sappy, gauzy "belief in himself" magically propelling him into an honor student and sports legend. Rudy never becomes the star of Notre Dame's offense, neither does he become the darling of its defense. He does manage, finally, to get the grades required for admission to Notre Dame . . . but barely. But more important than any of that, is that in the process, Rudy becomes one helluva man. He becomes a better man than best player on Notre Dame's team--and everyone, even that best player, can see it and must honor it. The whole thing is less a modern fairy tale about "self-esteem" and getting what you really want than it is an old-fashion story of American grit and determination to draw out what is best in your nature. It's about taking ownership of your successes and your failures and making the most of both in order to grow into a fine human being.
Will ends his column today with this admonition:
"People have been raising children for approximately as long as there
have been people. Only recently -- about five minutes ago, relative to
the long-running human comedy -- have parents been driving themselves
to distraction by taking too seriously the idea that "as the twig is
bent the tree's inclined." Twigs are not limitlessly bendable; trees
will be what they will be.
Well, "bravo" to that. For surely, you can't grow a fig tree from an acorn. So much of our modern angst and general unhappiness, it seems to me, is centered around the notion that happiness is to be found in some kind of will to power: I'm born an acorn who can, if properly nurtured, grow into a strong and mighty oak tree . . . but, gee . . . I prefer to be a fig. If only I believe it, then I can achieve it. I'm not going to discover the nature and the limits of my purposes. Instead, I will combat them, overcome them, transcend them, defy them. We'd all do well to remember how closely the modern parenting tripe about "self-esteem" can come to resemble something dangerously close to a bitch-slap in Mother Nature's face. Of course, confidence and nurturing are required even for an acorn to become a strong oak tree. But the first has to be earned through effort and the second should come first from love--but perhaps, more important, from understanding. How far do you bend a twig before you break it?