I'm noticing yet another disturbing trend among the young people with which I work: they feel they deserve high praise and accolades for ordinary, mundane things. I watched a student last week on the basketball court at lunch; he dribbled, he stopped, he took the shot, and then he beat his chest, looked at his teammates, and yelled, "Me, bitch!" like he just sank the winning basket in the NBA Finals. He didn't even make the basket. He barely hit the backboard with the ball. Still, he wants to be carried off the court on the shoulders of his peers.
Someone recently suggested to my wife (a high school teacher) that it's "now politically correct to praise failure; how could they understand [achievement] in a time where even the losing teams get prizes?" She's been dealing with Honors & AP kids who want to eek their Bs into As because they tried really hard. Me, I watched a student not too long ago kick a ball during PE. He kicked it against the outside wall of the gymnasium then spun to face his friends, throwing his arms up in triumph and expecting applause and congratulations. He wants praise for literally hitting the side of a barn.
I guess what bothers me most about the whole thing is that this is the sense of entitlement people seem to use later in life as an excuse not to work, not to parent, or not to care for property. I'm worried that their focus won't change, and that they'll eventually atrophy into those that we have to take care of because they can't take care of themselves. (A close second on my worry meter is that self-esteem-motivated praise ends up devaluing ALL praise, and praise can be a powerful tool when used properly.)
Of course, today I was reminded of why we started praising ordinary things in the first place. One of our students has been getting to school hours late on a regular basis, and today not even the principal and the police officer could get her out of bed to come to school; on the other hand, she lives in a one-room motel room with two parents who drink and party until 2 in the morning, so it's little wonder she's not functional until noon. Another of our students was worried about taking one of his finals this morning, and suggested to his father that he didn't want to go to school today; he arrived at school not long after receiving the beating his father gave him.
We motivate some kids to get to college; we motivate others just to get to tomorrow. Some of these kids get praised for little things because it's all they get a chance to do. Not all of them, and certainly not some of them . . . but a few--a very specific few--deserve the pat on the back for trying.