Are we being too kind to our kids?


Photo: Imgorthand


I recently found some of my primary school work that I had bought home and then used to play schools. I’d graded each poem and project out of ten and, using a red texta had scrawled comments like ‘grate stuff, good riteing’. I went to a rather alternative primary school in an era that is now being reviewed as too ‘progressive’, yet clearly I relished the power of playing teacher and wielding the red pen.  Yet while schools have headed back to basics – bringing back subjects I lacked like spelling and grammar, the shift towards more positive interaction, is continuing. The cane is now banned in every state and, in some schools, even the red pen is being put out to pasture. 

A school in Cornwall has banned the red pen saying it’s too negative and discouraging for students.  Teachers now give three constructive comments in green pen and students respond in purple.  Certainly anyone who has a child in primary school will know that criticism is rare and encouragement is now king. Honour awards and certificates are given out on a rotation and for all kinds of things such as ‘making a new friend’, ‘doing a lovely drawing’ or my child’s personal favourite ‘sharing his unique sense of humour with the class’.  School reports also seem sweet – so much so that you need to read between the lines to find out if your child is doing well or not. Even the grading uses words such as ‘achieving’ or ‘still working’ rather than the A to Fs of yesteryear. 


Such stories are easy to laugh and mock.  Yet I find it interesting that they raise such fears and furies on talkback radio and online. Comments such as ‘Kids … can’t handle any negativity…. How will they cope when realise the world is harsh and they are not ‘special snowflakes’’ seem to be accepted and valid criticism. The concern is that we are raising another generation of self-centred, spoilt brats like the millennials are constantly told that they are.  

But fear of children being self-centred, badly behaved and revolting is as old as philosophy itself.  It’s said that Plato attributed Socrates with saying that - 

‘The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannise their teachers.' 

But while the quote is disputed in source to the ancient philosopher, the sighing about ‘youth of today’ is probably as old as a caveman’s grunt.  

Indeed Plato himself advocated not to train a child by “force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each”. 

He could have been a founder of the Positive Education movement of today. 

‘Positive Education’ aims to be positive in all relationships with children.  It uses language that is encouraging and avoids negativity and criticism.  About 50 government and independent schools across Australia have adopted positive education in last five years, others are emulating some of their beliefs. 

These schools argue they are not making kids soft, merely building their resilience and reducing stress.  As I wrote about last week there are signs of significant anxiety on young kids today who face rising pressure to perform.  But how to help them cope with modern life – by kindness or tough love - is a question hotly debated amongst parents and educators.  Especially those who are teaching and bringing up already privileged kids who are sheltered from harsh living.   

But can we go too far? Can some kids be so confident they are cocky little buggers who become bullies without empathy? We all know kids like that. Certainly researchers in Hong Kong are concerned they have too many of them in their local school system at present.  

A study used a questionnaire that measures children's self-regard and their views of the outside world, as well as their means of achieving their desires. It found scores for narcissism and anti-social traits higher than in the US, UK and Australia.  Meanwhile the American National Institute of Health says the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older. 

But it’s too easy to blame positivity on what may be a complex issue.  Surely factors such as smaller families must be taken into account.  Besides, in China praise is not given out as it is in the west.  

To me kindness is an undervalued trait in modern life. Public shaming, belittling and negativity may toughen a child up on the surface but it’s sure to trigger cause anger and helplessness. I’m not advocating undeserved or insincere praise but cranky older people being worried about loved up youngsters seems to me to be too petty, jealous and sad to take seriously. I say get rid of the red pen, along with the cane; talk positively and constructively to kids and let them have certificates celebrating their mermaid sketches. Life gets tough enough later and resilience can be built in other ways than low marks and ‘could do betters’.  

Take to my argument with red pen and a D minus if you like.  Just don’t tell me. I may not be a millennium but I ‘m not into tough love at all.  


  • As I teacher, I tend to use coloured pen as it's easier to read against students' black or blue writing - and yes, it's sometimes red - rather than to seem negative. While there is definitely a need to be positive, particularly when giving students feedback on their work, we do also learn from our mistakes, and thus critical comments can be helpful. I think the point is to be constructive, rather than merely "negative", which is what the overwhelming majority of teachers will be attempting in these situations.

    Teacher's Desk
    Date and time
    March 25, 2014, 9:20AM
    • Also a teacher (for approaching 13 years) I've seen the resilience of children decrease.

      The fact of the matter is, that if we wrap them up in cotton wool, which banning the use of red pen to 'spare their feelings' really is, then we're teaching them nothing about the 'real world' that isn't going to care.

      Providing constructive criticism and positive encouragement is a key part of a teacher's job, as is aiding in molding young people into responsible, well-rounded, self-sufficient and resilient young adults. Not using a red pen plays no part in any of the above, and while red may be a more stress inducing colour than others, we're far better off teaching our kids how to cope with stress that they will definitely face when they leave our care, than we are protecting them from it to such a degree.

      The red pen of reality is much harsher than any I can wield.

      Date and time
      March 25, 2014, 9:35AM
      • More red pen is needed, positive reinforcement is all good, but it doesn't remove the need to tell people they are wrong when they are wrong. The feeling of remorse when you see the red pen reinforces the high of the positive reinforcement teaching quicker.

        We don't want a whole generation of kids walking around 'in the emperors new clothes' at some point when they are wrong someone has to inform them, and help them understand not only is there a better way to do it there is consequences when you do something wrong in your work.

        I hire 2 new jnr staff every year because I believe the best way for people to learn is on the job, but I've stopped hiring the ones that are qualified for the job, the greater the time they've spent at school the more training on right and wrong they need. I'm sick of post grads with degrees, and masters qualifications delivering the same work that is wrong, time and time again, they just keep making the same mistakes.
        I prefer jnr's who have been trained to understand they are a jnr they are far from the end skill level and by understanding that they come to learn.

        Encourage the use of the red pen in school when there's time for it, back it up with positive reinforcement when you tell them how they could've done it better. Because in the real world they are going to face it and the consequences tend to be greater than markings on a essay.

        Red Pen Success
        Date and time
        March 25, 2014, 9:41AM
        • Embedded formative assessment guidelines, and indeed the assessment guidance found in the Australian Curriculum documents, talk about the importance of ongoing, constructive comments from teachers, to assist pupil learning. However, too many people take this as prohibition of negative comments or indeed red pens. This is not the case. Sometimes you are wrong and we do the children no favours by dancing around this with euphemisms. By all means show the way forward but wrong is wrong and needs to be acknowledged.
          I have been teaching for too long to be PC about this. We are raising a generation of children who never hear "no" and who are never told they are wrong. Over the past 10 years or so, there has been a marked increase in the number of parents who come up to school to remonstrate with teachers over a question in a test or assessment. They are almost always wrong, and admit that, but still want the matter dealt with differently. "It will damage his/her self esteem" is the usual cry. What, as opposed to telling them wrong is right? Can't see that messing anyone up long term...
          Balance is the key.

          Date and time
          March 25, 2014, 10:16AM
          • Quite apart from the self-esteem issues are the growth and development issues.

            If you do not tell someone where they went wrong, how will they know what to work on for next time?

            Giving only positive feedback might make them feel good, for awhile, but in the long run is counter-productive.

            I love constructive criticism - how else can I improve? I want to learn and grow.

            If possible, a mix of positive comments and points for improvement are the appropriate way forward, obviously.

            I read somewhere a long time ago that you should offer a positive point, a point for improvement and then wrap it up with a positive point - sounds good to me.

            Children love a challenge and love to try to please adults - give them the feedback and the tools and support to let them try. That is what learning is all about.

            Resilience is a good thing to learn.

            Date and time
            March 25, 2014, 10:34AM
            • And having been involved in developing antiself-harm groups some more learned persons than i are suggesting kids are unskilled at learning what failure is and how to cope with it these days as they are not learning what it means. Banning red pens is just another cotton wool approach. Next they will ban death as it hurts kids feelings!

              Date and time
              March 25, 2014, 10:42AM
              • I'm sorry but this whole "the children are made of glass" attitude needs to go. Obviously there is no place for a teacher to be unnecessarily critical of a student's work but to not be able to provide correction in red pen (for the very simple reason that it stands out) seems ludicrous to me.

                "You misspelled cat. That's ok though. Here's a green star for encouragement which positively reinforces the fact that you can't spell. It doesn't matter - everything has spell check these days"

                Guess what? Learning and development -requires- that mistakes are pulled up and brought to a student's attention and stickers and sweet comments are not going to achieve this.

                I don't agree with hitting children and I don't agree with negative, critical remarks. However, correctional, fact-based feedback is absolutely necessary and I for one am sick and tired of the way we constantly dis-empower teachers in favour of students sensitivities.

                When they get their first real job and their first real boss brings all of hell down on them they'll wish their teachers had been a little tougher.

                Date and time
                March 25, 2014, 11:42AM
                • I think the only association with red=bad comes from a lot of people remembering negative comments more vividly than positive ones. The truth is that red ink is much more visible than many other colours, and has a stark contrast to blue, black or lead pencil so that you can actually read the feedback.

                  Most teachers don't set out to be negative or overly critical - good teachers point out what needs work in a constructive way. When it boils down to it, it is exceptionally rare for a student to produce something that needs no more work to make it better. It doesn't matter what colour pen is used to point this out. Constructive feed back is the best thing that any kid can ever be given, in any colour.

                  Date and time
                  March 25, 2014, 1:37PM
                  • How can you learn resilience if you never fail at anything? That's not 'shaming' or 'public humiliation'. I once got a merit award at school 'for being a lovely girl'. I was torn between being quite chuffed that I'd won a book (never turn down a free book) and being quite aware that it was a sympathy prize because, whilst I might have been nice, I wasn't good enough at anything to win a prize otherwise. Do all the kids who get 'prizes' for nothing feel like that?

                    Date and time
                    March 25, 2014, 2:04PM
                    • I'm all for positive reinforcement and awards provided they are for the exceptional, not just the expected or mediocre. Balance is essential and there is nothing wrong with a constructive (or negative) comment (or two). Yes, the world is a hard place and being a kid only happens once, but placing a positive spin on every- little- action creates unrealistic expectations. We are already seeing the impact of these in the workplace with those who have passed through this "positive" schooling - where any form of performance counselling is seen as being bullied by the employer. While school may reward the child for making the effort, that's not always going to be sufficient in the workplace. The old fashioned pass/fail sets the standard - pass: you have done enough; fail: you need to do more.

                      Kindness is an undervalued trait as is humility, discipline and consideration for others. I can't help but wandering if this type of positive schooling is, rather than being kind, actually cruel to the individual when you put it in context of a whole life.

                      Date and time
                      March 25, 2014, 2:09PM

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