Life is not fair: Com­mon sense for ‘bub­blewrapped’ youths

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Robert Stacy McCain

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.”

Karen Pea­cock / The Wash­ing­ton Times

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