Life is not fair: Common sense for ‘bubblewrapped’ youths
Charles Sykes may be a smart guy who knows his way around a computer, but he’s not a software mogul.
Why, then, do so many people think that Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote a list of “Rules Kids Won’t Learn In School” that Mr. Sykes first published more than a decade ago?
A successful columnist, author and Milwaukee radio talk-show host, Mr. Sykes mostly blames a number of Internet and individual e-mailers who circulated the list with the false attribution.
It was at first “flattering, but ultimately somewhat annoying,” Mr. Sykes says about his list of rules being attributed to a computer genius with a fortune estimated at more than $50 billion.
Why Mr. Gates? Well, it might have been Mr. Sykes’ rule No. 11 (in a list of 14) that said, “Be nice to nerds. You may end up working for them. We all could.”
The rules list “started popping up on thousands of Internet sites” and — despite debunking as an “urban legend” by Snopes.com and others — are still making the rounds.
He doesn’t complain that this is unfair, however, perhaps because Rule No. 1 on his list is: “Life is not fair. Get used to it.”
Despite the misattribution of his original work, Mr. Sykes says he realized that the list “had touched a nerve,” and now has expanded it into a new book, “50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School: Real-World Antidotes to Feel-Good Education.”
The rules, he says, are mainly what used to be considered ordinary common sense.
“Unfortunately, common sense is countercultural,” he says. “A lot of parents are afraid to tell their kids two things: ‘No,’ and what real life is all about.”
While “50 Rules” — like Mr. Sykes’ widely praised 1996 book, “Dumbing Down Our Kids” — focuses much of its criticism on the public education system, the book is “also a critique of parents and culture in general,” he says.
“A lot of parents have surrendered their role as being the grown- up,” Mr. Sykes says. “One of the main targets [of the book is] what I call the ‘bubble-wrapping’ of children. That’s the belief that our children are so frail and fragile that they need to be insulated from the symptoms of life — bumps, bruises, frustration, losing.”
The bubble-wrapped approach produces “young people who don’t develop an immune system for reality,” he says. “They are utterly unprepared for the reality of life. You have a generation of kids who are stuffed with self-esteem, unrealistic expectations, a sense of entitlement, but no real skills.
“They’ve never heard ‘no.’ They’ve never had to deal with frustration or failure before,” and as a result, he says, “They are constantly complaining that life is not fair.”
Mr. Sykes, 52, is a father of three — one grown and two who are still teenagers, including a son who is a freshman at Georgetown University. Mr. Sykes graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, married and became a father all before turning 21, an experience that he says “fast-forwarded the growing-up process” for him.
He worked as a newspaper reporter and magazine editor before publishing his first book, “Profscam: Professors and the Decline of Higher Education,” in 1989. He began his popular WTMJ morning radio program in 1992, and also appears weekly as host of his own Milwaukee weekly “Sunday Insight” television show.
Mr. Sykes’ old-school sensibility and his sometimes sarcastic humor are highlighted in his “50 Rules,” among which are:
No. 7 — “If you think your teacher is tough, wait until you get a boss.”
No. 15 — “Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping. They called it opportunity.”
No. 18 — “Life is not divided into semesters. And you don’t get summers off.”
No. 26 — “A moral compass does not come as standard equipment.”
No. 34 — “Winners have a philosophy of life. So do losers.”
No. 38 — “Look people in the eye when you meet them.”
No. 43 — “Don’t let the successes of others depress you.”
Mr. Sykes says he sees more parents sharing the concerns expressed by his common-sense rules.
“It’s actually harder to be a parent nowadays, because you can’t count on the school or the culture to back you up. That’s part of the problem,” Mr. Sykes says.
Many of his “50 Rules” are aimed at the problems generated by the “self-esteem” movement, which was also a primary target of “Dumbing Down Our Kids.”
“People are realizing that the self-esteem obsession resulted in a generation of spoiled brats,” Mr. Sykes says.
“What employers and universities find is not only that young people lack basic skills, but also they have this overwhelming sense of entitlement,” he says, attributing it to schools in which children received “gold stars and happy faces for mediocre work,” as well as the “trophiesfor-all” approach to youth sports and parents “who were more concerned about being their children’s buddies rather than authority figures.”
The culture of “self-esteem” in contemporary America harms the children it is supposed to help, Mr. Sykes says.
“We’re not doing kids a favor by telling them they’re wonderful when they’re not, or telling them they can be anything they want to be — unless they are willing to work for it,” he says.
“It’s the ‘American Idol’ syndrome: Young people with no talent whatsoever [who are] genuinely shocked when they’re told they’re not talented — because, obviously, no one had ever told them this before.”