A Discouraging Word: Is It Okay to Criticize Kids?

If you could find a way to get Billy in as a pitcher,” one of my player’s fathers emailed, “it would really make his day.”

It was a simple appeal to boost a 9-year-old’s happiness. This was, after all, just Little League.

Yet we were into our sixth game, and most of the other boys were invested in our so-far poor results. One mother related that her son was teased at school, and she wanted to know what we could do about it. “Play harder and get better,” I said.

Billy was a likable boy. He was also one of the reasons we were losing. He didn’t play hard or get better. He didn’t make it to every practice or game. In the outfield, his attention would wander, and he’d gaze at who-knew-what in a parking lot or someplace other than where he needed to. (“Billy, game’s this way!”) In the infield, he kicked dirt at his feet. (“Billy, ready position!”) If he was paying attention and heard me, he’d make a perfunctory twitch indicating that he was ready, but one or two pitches later, Billy snapped back to a state of unreadiness. He looked startled when balls came toward him, and on the occasion he got ahold of one, his shoulder and elbow somehow moved in opposite directions. It had to be an optical illusion. The throw itself often set in motion miscues that ended with the other team celebrating.

And now I heard his happiness depended on being a pitcher.

I groaned, anticipating that once on the mound — what choice did I have? — he’d hear the opposing bench’s cheers and his teammates’ quietness as they witnessed him walk batter after batter. “Come on, Billy!” someone would shout from the bleachers. “You can do it, Billy!” Which, let’s be frank, is what someone says when no one, least of all a kid in Billy’s shoes, believed he could. The attempt to “make Billy’s day” would ruin his and everyone else’s. You had to hope no one mocked him at school the next day.

That Billy didn’t see it was one thing. Billy, after all, was 9. But why didn’t his father? “Son,” he needed to say, “you’re not ready to pitch. Let’s practice, and maybe you’ll get there.”

Billy was a likable boy. He was also one of the reasons we were losing.

If Little League is innocuous enough — or not, given the way competition among boys determines status off the field, too — the situation of people who do not see where they stand, their abilities and limitations, comes up quite frequently well into adulthood. Unrealistic self-­evaluations and false encouragement from people who should be candid or know better bring to mind the phrase that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. We’re all big on dreams and destiny and vision, and we latch onto stories about people who, through persistence and determination, proved a naysayer wrong. We like late-bloomers almost as much as prodigies. The message is to not give up. Believe in yourself. Do not let others put you off of your dreams. We are buoyed up by clichés, which begin to obscure the fact that gloom-to-glory tales are fun and notable precisely because they are exceptional.

When eventually we do accept our own limitations, we sometimes pass down our unrealized hopes to children, and nurture them to believe they can do anything, as the phrase goes, they set their minds to — a nice idea that’s often a setup to the disappointment that will eventually come to pass.

A friend who is a professor at a large university lamented the phenomenon among his master’s students. They are educated people by any reasonable standard, and that they’re in a humanities-­related field shows they are ambitious about knowledge rather than just money. But the leap from master’s to doctoral candidates is like single-A minor league ball to the majors, and only a small minority will make it.

“The number of students who don’t see that they’re not up to it is astonish ing,” he said. “It’s not just that they’re applying to doctoral programs when they shouldn’t be. They’re even applying to top-tier schools. You just wonder what they’re thinking that they could overrate themselves so badly.”

They don’t care for being told where they stand, either. One mediocre student asked him for a recommendation for her application. He recommended that she take stock of her strengths and weaknesses. “I don’t know why he hates me,” she told another student. It had to be intensely painful to have slogged that far to realize you’re not going farther, like Moses on Mount Nebo.

In the case of my 9-year-old pitcher, you could argue that there is something worthwhile, maybe even noble, in trying. As the poet Robert Browning put it, “Ah, but a man’s grasp should exceed his reach, or what’s a heaven for?” Well, okay. But grasping when you aren’t even close, least of all when you haven’t really put the time in, is just wishful, if not delusional. A person who keeps chasing an unrealistic dream may feel as if he just can’t catch a break. If you realize your vision is a mirage, do you not change course? Where does encouraging someone, either because they’re not ready or because they’re just not good enough, cross into irresponsible counsel? When is just not trying — in other words, not engaging in futile effort — the better choice?

I suspect that often enough, somewhere in there, the mind and body know. At some point, even if you can’t figure it out, colleagues, customers, teammates, boards of directors, and P&L statements will enlighten you. Disappointment is a grim reaper.

My generation, I think I’m safe to say, made being parents into a verb, and contained within the word parenting an entire lexicon of notions about how to be supportive and foster self-esteem. We were always extremely careful to be encouraging.

We meant well.

Critics called this generation “helicopter parents” because we seemed to be hovering over our children. I think perhaps a better term would be “umbrella parents,” who would stand guard against any rain that might fall.

Protection is one thing. But you can’t forever shield your child from disappointment. It’s inevitable. And I would argue that experiencing some disappointment in childhood is good practice for life’s greater griefs. Disappointment also has a way of directing us to our greater strengths. The actor-director-writer Andrew McCarthy told me once that he’d only started acting because he’d failed to make the basketball team. So maybe the takeaway here is that Billy’s dad could be teaching Billy a lesson rather than trying to press for an unrealistic goal.

In the end, I decided not to accede to Billy’s father’s request. I thought disappointment would be easier to bear than humiliation. I also felt that indulging him when he hadn’t earned it would send his teammates the wrong message. Didn’t their feelings count, too?

There is much to be said for striving for what is attainable. At my local café, I ran into a man of a certain age who had always seemed to me comfortable having made reasonable accomplishments, a man with the wisdom to reach for the attainable and live in good humor.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“Old, fat, and ugly,” he replied good-naturedly.

“And otherwise?”

“Otherwise I’m all right, thanks for asking.”

He doctored up his coffee with milk and sugar and walked out through the door, his silhouette framed by the white light of a sunny morning.

I wondered if once, 60 years ago or so, he had hoped to get a chance to pitch.

Todd Pitock’s last article for the Post was “Floating Toward Ecstasy” in the January/February 2017 issue.

This article is featured in the May/June 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.