being tough isnt the same as being mean


A topic came up in a conversation between a friend and I. It was centered around what we perceive as a trend towards “non-competitiveness” in American education. You have all heard the stories…no dodgeball in school…we cant have “winners” and “losers” because we don’t want our children “feeling” inferior…”failure” is turned into something to be avoided at all times instead of being viewed as a fact of life and an opportunity to grow.

It’s our opinion that children need to be exposed to the “facts of life”. We do fail, we fail all the time. There are winners and loosers in life. You will not be that precious unique snowflake out there in the job market. The idea is to learn what to do with failure, not to teach our children that failure is somehow unacceptable and to be avoided at all costs. That breeds people who never even try.

I think that there has been a bit of confusion between “toughening” our children and making them “bullies” or “mean”. When someone talks about “toughening” up a child it seems to get translated into being some overbearing father who wants to push their child to an unattainable standard. Or the abusive dad transforming their kid into a playground terror. Toughness isn’t the same as meanness.

Mental Toughness is defined as having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables one to cope better than their opponents with the many demands (e.g., competition, training, lifestyle) that are placed on them as a performer. Specifically, to be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, resilient, and in control under pressure.

Teaching our children that they are each a “precious snowflake” is all well and good, but what ultimately serves them better in life, protecting them from the pressures of reality or preparing them for it?

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9 thoughts on “being tough isnt the same as being mean”

  1. Outstanding site. I’m loving every post I come across here.

    With regards to this one, I agree with everything you say EXCEPT for your suggestion that “dodgeball” is being unfairly targeted in our schools.

    You are correct that we need to teach our children about winning and losing. And that while failure is a great learning opportunity, its still losing. I gladly teach my daughters that “losing sucks” and “it pays to be a winner.”

    But I would not lump “every kid gets a trophy” in with “dodgeball teaches kids to be tough.” If the kid wants to play dodgeball, great! It can teach them to be tough. To take a hit and to keep going. Much like football or any contact sport.

    But dodgeball isn’t usually a game of choice. At least, not when I was in school. It was the activity of the day. And more importantly, it was a time that many bullies did look forward to because it was a school approved way to pound the hell out of the weaker kids.

    Its one thing to let kids suffer through defeats or failures. I’ve got nothing against kids having to climb the rope in gymn and being embarrassed because they can’t do it. They may be the one thing that drives them to try harder to overcome their weaknesses. Or it may be an opportunity for them to accept that they can’t be good at everything and to simply focus on their successes. But dodgeball isn’t the same thing, it really is an opportunity for kids to be mean.

    Just my .02.

  2. Eh..Im not really wedded to dodgeball as a “necessary game” as much as I was trying to make an example of the “lets remove any trace of something kids may not like or excell at” phenomena.

    In my experience, my daughters didnt like it either. But its dodgeball, there is no “physical contact” and the balls they use are not bowling balls, so I told them them to “suck it up” so to speak. We all have to do things we dont like and yep some kids are bullies…learn who they are and remember. In the end they have a choice. Either take a hit early just to get out, hide in the back or try your best and see where things go. Theres a lot of life decisions that go the same way.

    Now if they were being forced into tackle football that would be another matter.

    Not saying you are wrong by any means though, thats just my .o2.

    PS-Thanks for the compliments on my blog. Glad to know that some people are reading it.

  3. The idea that games like Dodgeball create too much emotional trauma, stresses violent response, and leaves some kids feeling left out or targeted is true…. if managed poorly by teachers/adult supervision. It isn’t Dodgeball per se, it’s the whole ‘competition is too traumatizing’ mentality toward challenging activities. It’s on par with the invisible jump rope.

    I do agree with the life long fitness movement; the exploration of activities other than competitive sports does allow people the chance to find all kind of fun activities that they can enjoy. BUT, throwing away competitive sports is a bunch of hooey in my mind. I don’t remember the source, but I remember hearing about many WWII veterans using football and baseball references/analogies to explain teamwork, tactics, and accomplishments.

  4. Just because something is unpleasant doesnt mean that it should be abandoned IMO. There is a lot in life that is unpleasant. It how kids are taught to deal with “unpleasantness” that a learning experience exists. And I think its either being missed by educators or they just dont know how to handle it.

  5. I read something recently about how it’s important to praise children… but not with generalities like “You’re so smart” or “You’re amazing.” I believe there was an actual study that compared kids who heard this stuff with kids who heard specifics: “You worked so hard on learning your letters” or “All that pitching practice really paid off.” Guess which group did better once on their own in college?

    My older son is a praise sponge so although we started out with the “you’re so smart” stuff – he’s deeply sensitive and we were, I admit, trying to build his self-esteem – he does respond so much better to specific praise, and you can see the wheels turning in his little head about how hard he worked. Like me at his age, he thinks everyone “just knows” how to do things and so he gives up more quickly. My hope is to help him learn that everyone needs to work hard to get where they are.

  6. Hi Christa,

    I think you point out an important distinction. People confuse praising the child for praising what the child does. Just prasing the kid because…well just because, isnt going to accomplish much. Praising what the child does builds confidence. Not the ego.

  7. Educational jargon has most of this distinction but uses its own vocabulary: “resilience” is the word officially referring to emotional or mental toughness that is not meanness–the ability to persist, bounce back, and persevere until successful.

  8. I’m at a loss right now about a situation that my son is experiencing at school. In his case, the bullying involves ‘kids being rude/mean’ on the bus and during recess. Here, the structured classroom environment is no longer providing any protection, and children seem to be left to fend for themselves. My son (who is seven) is having a hard time dealing with kids who swear, are rude, keep kids off the play structure, and tease. He has become quite sensitive to ‘being laughed at’ and cries quite easily. For him, he perceives telling the teacher as pointless because kids ‘have a time out’ and when they come back they are “meaner … just to make sure I don’t tell.” The school has a policy against being a tattle-tale, and they are ‘only supposed to tell a teacher’ if someone is being mean/deliberately hurting someone. I’m listening to what he is telling me; I’v told him some comments/language he needs to ignore; and it’s alright to tell someone that they are ‘being mean’. How do you toughen your child up, and at the same time teach them manners, negotiation skills, empathy etc.?

    1. How do you toughen your child up, and at the same time teach them manners, negotiation skills, empathy etc.?

      While Im sure that you know the difference, this question illustrates my exact point in this post.

      “Being Tough” is not mutually exclusive of being courteous or having empathy. In my job I strive to be courteous, but I am also FIRM. I try to negotiate when the situation allows, but I also know what my DUTY is. I can be “tough” by sticking to my duty, but I dont have to be “mean”..this is not about ME or my feelings. It is about doing what is expected of me.

      We should be striving to teach our children what WE EXPECT FROM THEM. We should be teaching them to recognize what is right and wrong and to stand by the “right” even when its difficult. You telling your Son that “it’s alright to tell someone that they are ‘being mean” is a big step in and of itself.

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