Several months ago, Orson Scott Card published an article in the Mormon Times that describes the loneliness he felt when he was a child, when everybody seemed to value athletic prowess and neglect intellectual curiosity. He explains, “This is the era when kids who actually excel at school are called by sickening epithets like ‘nerd’ or ‘geek'; intellectual or artistic students are usually treated as pariahs by their peers, unless they are also either rich, rebellious or athletic.” There is, indeed, a culture among our youth that prizes athletic talent and downplays and even ignores academic talent. I don’t think these values come from nowhere. Children are taught what to value by their parents and their teachers, in addition to their peers.
Wait, what? Parents and teachers teach children to value athletic prowess more than academic achievement? Most of us would reject that accusation. Certainly none of us value athletic accomplishment more than intellectual accomplishment. How and why would we ever teach them to? The truth is that we vote on what our youth should value with our wallets, our time, and our praise.
Orson Scott Card provides a case example of how we do this:
Some years ago, we were notified that our child was receiving an academic honor, so there we were at the middle school awards assembly. One sports team after another gave out its awards, with emotional speeches from the coaches about the marvelous achievements and team spirit and leadership and what-not that this or that child had displayed.
Since the assembly was during the last period of the day, it had to end on time — kids had to catch their buses; parents would be waiting in their minivans out front. So with only minutes to go, the principal went to the podium and read off the names of the academic awards recipients. He asked them to stand in place in the bleachers and they got a round of applause. None of that emotional praise that the athletes got. No individual attention.
In a conversation with the vice principal of the school about this event, Card learned that the principal valued (or claimed to value) academic achievement just as much as athletic achievement. It had never occurred to him that the school was training students to do the opposite. Children respond to praise. Students respond to attention. The students in that assembly got the message that was likely never intended: academic accomplishments are a footnote to athletic achievement, and scholars live in the shadows of athletes. LZ Granderson, a CNN contributor, wrote a fascinating editorial recently, in which he made a bold claim:
We also don’t believe in the value of education, culturally — we just like to say we do because as citizens of an industrialized nation, we’re supposed to. But we can tell our children that school is important until we’re blue in the face, they’re not stupid. They see the loudest applause is for the kids on the field. They know teachers are paid poorly and don’t drive fancy cars. They know people plan Super Bowl parties but mock the National Spelling Bee.
As a society, we teach children what to value by demonstrating what we value. Granderson’s point is clear: we’re “supposed” to value academic achievement and intellectual curiosity, but we generally give more attention to sports. Children engage in observational learning, and so they get the hint. In this way, I think that we inadvertently contribute to a school culture where our more academically-oriented children feel isolated and undervalued by their peers, just as Orson Scott Card did.
What can we do? Granderson has taken a new approach to parenting. He is going to give his children as much attention for their academic achievements and interests as their athletic achievements. He explains:
I finally figured out that if I wanted my son to really embrace education, I had to take the lead. Not by downplaying his accomplishments on the field but by elevating the importance of his work in the classroom. So I smile in the doorway when I walk into a room to see him reading for fun the same way I smile when I look out into the backyard to see him working on his dribbling.
It sounds a bit odd, I will admit, but if exuberant positive reinforcement is acceptable for tossing a ball in a hoop, why is it out of place to be just as excited for our kids getting good grades?
Now, I disagree that grades should be celebrated as representing academic achievement, because they don’t. But I absolutely agree with providing just as much positive reinforcement for reading, for studying, for exploring, for curiosity, as we do for winning a sports game.
What are some other ways we accidentally teach children values we wouldn’t claim to share? Lisa Bloom, a Huffington Post contributor, published a recent article with a compelling observation. Our first instinct when we see a little girl is to make a comment to them about how pretty or adorable they are. In other words, our first interaction with them when they come into the room is often a comment on their looks. Bloom explains, “Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything.” The consequences on our society have already been devastating, according to Bloom:
15 to 18 percent of girls under 12 now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and 25 percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart. A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers. This keeps happening, and it breaks my heart. … What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.
What can we do? Bloom has a suggestion:
Try this the next time you meet a little girl. She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it. Ask her what she’s reading. What does she like and dislike, and why? There are no wrong answers. You’re just generating an intelligent conversation that respects her brain. For older girls, ask her about current events issues: pollution, wars, school budgets slashed. What bothers her out there in the world? How would she fix it if she had a magic wand? You may get some intriguing answers. Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books. Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.
I think this is a very healthy approach. It trains children to be valued for their intellect, rather than their appearance. It teaches them that we pay more attention to what they have to offer the world in the way of ideas. It is up to us to raise a generation that values books, ideas, and the mind more than athletics and beauty. We can do that by being conscientious in the way we praise them. Sure, we can tell girls how pretty they are and boys how talented they are at soccer. But perhaps we should tell just as often how amazing it is that they love to read, and ask them for their perspective on important ideas and issues, and praise them for their insights.
Of course, as Latter-day Saints, we believe that we should value our physicality. We should spend time eating healthy, working out, and making as much use of our physical body as we do our mind. That is, after all, the reason we came here. But perhaps each of us can pause and consider: are we giving inordinate attention to sports? Do we collectively spend extravagantly more money in game tickets than we do at the book store or on science fair projects, (etc.)? And what do our conversations with and around our children focus on?
The little things matter. The small conversations make a difference. The way we greet them, the first things we say to them when we walk through the door, can change their perspective on everything.