Anya Marchenko: Amy Chua is on my speed dial

Anya Marchenko

When I grow up, I can just feel it: I’m going to be a tiger mother.
My intense mothering isn’t going to be about no sleepovers or no school plays. It’s going to be about worrying less about kids’ self-esteem and more about making sure they’re prepared for obstacles in their future. Because frankly, I don’t think our society is doing a good job of that.

I guarantee that almost all of the people reading this have accumulated some ribbons, trophies and certificates. For some of you, anybody walking in might think that yours is the room of an Olympic-athlete-turned-chess-grandmaster-turned-Harvard-graduate who saves small kittens in his or her spare time. And I bet that all of you are extremely proud of your seemingly multitude of accomplishments that these prizes signify.

Aren’t you? Well, maybe not.

That’s because most of the prizes we get are near-meaningless consolation certificates. Oh, you didn’t get first, second or third? Here’s an official-looking piece of paper to make you feel better about yourself.

Giving away prizes so frivolously and for so little effort (sometimes merely showing up: the awful “Certificate of Participation”) degrades the value of the prize. What’s the point in winning first or second if you get something for “participation” anyway?

A lot of students in sports probably realize that determination and practice set apart someone who wins first from someone who doesn’t. However, for younger children, the distinction between winners and losers might be blurred when everybody gets prizes anyway. Case in point: a week ago my younger sister came home from a gymnastics competition where she forgot half of her routine and ended up hastily improvising cartwheels for the remainder of the time. Around her neck was a big, shiny medal.

She’s my sister and I love her dearly, but when she forgets most of her routine, she’s not supposed to win anything.

The mindset is that at an early age, giving out prizes in a particular activity is supposed to encourage children to continue doing it. However, I think this causes issues later on. People who really do win think less of their accomplishment, while the rest of us think we’re much better than we really are.

This is not merely me releasing my frustration about the world (OK…maybe a little). These are trends that have been noticed by the scientific community.

For example, 95 percent of teachers at the University of Nebraska thought their teaching was above average. Seventy percent of students who took the Scholastic Aptitude Test thought that their leadership ability was better than the 50th percentile. And 88 percent of college students thought that their driving safety was better than average. Now, I’m not too good at math, but something doesn’t seem to add up.
These studies show that people grow up with skewed perceptions of themselves. In fact, those handy psychologists have a term for that too. It is called the Downing effect after C.L. Downing, who discovered that people with a high IQ estimate their IQ to be lower than actuality and people with a low IQ estimate it to be higher than it actually is. Because we were praised and awarded early in life, we think that we’re going to have the same “success” later on and then are disappointed or when things don’t go our way.

As a society, we have to go back to the true system of merit. We must teach that one gets what one earns through hard-work, and that there is a clear difference between those who lose and those who win. Instead of trying to protect a seven-year-old from the awful truth that she did badly, we have to assume that our children and siblings will not fall apart at the slightest mention of a loss.

Just like Amy Chua said: when we assume strength, not fragility, we might get some surprising results.