Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

He failed a key exam, and a few hours later, he bought a high-powered rifle. I think you can guess who “he” is — the accused “Dark Knight” madman, James Holmes. But can you guess why he did it?

The explanation haunting me is this: He’s a product of the “everyone gets a trophy” generation.

Now, let me hasten to say that I have no degrees in psychology, nor have I examined the man. Let me add that the vast majority of kids, even those with shelves full of meaningless trophies, do not end up shooting theaters full of people.

Nonetheless, as founder of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” I’ve spent a lot of time watching our culture trying to convince today’s kids that they have not failed at anything, ever.

There are schools that have outlawed using red pens for corrections, for fear it’s too traumatizing. In Canada, a veteran science teacher was just fired for giving kids a zero on homework they didn’t hand in. Closer to home, my own son brought home a bright, shiny trophy for coming in eighth place in his bowling league.

Out of nine teams. (See below!) Apparently, the league hoped my boy never would notice that when it comes to bowling, he stinks.

Our generation is shielding our kids from failure because we don’t think they can handle it — even though kids always have. Sure, it feels bad to lose a game or get a bad grade, but it is only recently that teachers, parents, principals and coaches decided that kids are too sensitive to bounce back from a single setback.

And then we wonder why kids can’t bounce back from a single setback.

In no way am I excusing James Holmes of the heinous crimes he will be charged with. But we do our kids no favors by shielding them from the fact that they’re not always winners. In fact, we may be turning them into losers.

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82 Responses to “FAILURE & THE BATMAN SHOOTING SUSPECT by Lenore Skenazy”

  1. #1 |  ShelbyC | 

    The shooting quite clearly happened because of gay marriage.

  2. #2 |  Stormy Dragon | 

    Now, let me hasten to say that I have no degrees in psychology, nor have I examined the man. Let me add that the vast majority of kids, even those with shelves full of meaningless trophies, do not end up shooting theaters full of people.

    See, right about here is where you should have realized the entire post was specious.

  3. #3 |  Stormy Dragon | 


    You need to be respectful to the guest bloggers.

    So I guess all the guest bloggers get a trophy? Lenore should be happy the commenters aren’t letting concerns for her self esteem to dull their criticism of her performance, allowing her the opportunity to experience failure.

  4. #4 |  Patrick from Popehat | 

    This is a thought-provoking post that isn’t about what a few of you seem to think it’s about.

    I enjoyed writing here, when I was writing here. I think most of the regular commenters are pretty sharp. But Radley lacks the time to weed his garden of idiots who can’t read between the lines, and sometimes that shows. This is one such case.

    Fine debut, Lenore.

  5. #5 |  HoldingTheFire | 

    Fuck you.

  6. #6 |  Radley Balko | 

    I’ll just make this as clear as I can: Act like a grown-up, or you won’t be commenting here anymore.

  7. #7 |  CyniCAl | 

    Baseball is the greatest game because failure is written into the code of the game. Even the best players fail, up to 70% of the time.

    It is also why some kids can’t be good baseball players. They simply cannot handle failure with equanimity.

    My son has become an excellent baseball player. I am proud of his ability to handle pressure and treat success and failure with grace.

    May baseball continue to contribute to the emotional development of America’s youth.

  8. #8 |  Lefty | 

    – Patrick

    If there’s something deeper to be gleaned from the post beyond the comparison between a mentally ill person who went on a shooting spree and trophy kids I’ve missed it. I don’t think this is a normal guy who just never learned to handle failure. So the comparison is a stretch at best. If there’s something between the lines I’m missing I’d appreciate being told.

  9. #9 |  Mantooth | 

    Circle the wagons! Wasn’t there “biting” satire posted here immediately after the shooting making fun of people who project their hobby horse onto every tragedy? I must be one of the duller visitors because this struck me as just that. Looking forward to more posting as I’ve enjoyed the guests but I must have missed the point.

  10. #10 |  Reggie Hubbard | 

    This read like bad armchair psychology. It might very well be the most poorly written thing I’ve read on this site.

    There may be validity to Lenore’s statement but with nothing but snippets of hints of the Aurora gunman’s psyche, this is just a moronic thing to write and seems to be an example of somebody taking a major news story and making it fit their own shallow narrative. This column could simply have been Ms. Skenazy giving us highlights from her blog/book. Instead, it became an infuriating proofless rationalization of a horrifying event. It kind of reminded me of all of those ‘victim’s name law’ stories we see on this blog where a single rare event is used to push a tangentially related idea.

  11. #11 |  Jess | 

    Lefty, I think Patrick means that lamentably few of the commenters here ever read any Foucault. Not only is “mentally ill” a concrete category for them, but the mere suggestion that this event is due in some small part to the structure, habits, values, and choices of our society has been enough to send most of you to Crazy Town. If you find yourself unhinged from all norms of decorum and courtesy by a novel hypothesis (rather than in response to someone else’s rudeness, although even then…), you require more practice at civilized discourse.

    It piques the curiosity (of those who possess such, anyway) just how fast Holmes has been relegated to the mental ward. Those in the media we pay to keep us asleep, how do they see so clearly our need for protection from this individual and the questions that his actions raise? When we’re titillated by every trivial factoid of the approved narrative of the inquisition du jour, what scab are we really picking?

    Why does Holmes’s potential sanity challenge us so? What does it reveal, that we would keep hidden?

    If you really want to appreciate Radley’s project, then you should try to be more sensitive to the contrived nature of most of the categories and institutions that enslave humans, whether we’re talking drug prohibition, the mental health industry, or any of the other topics he and his guests cover.

  12. #12 |  Lefty | 

    I doubt this is some conspiracy to keep whatever message or meaning he may have had under wraps. Holmes was already seeing a psychiatrist. A guy who specialized in treating schizophrenia. And the speed with which he’s been relegated to the nut house probably has something to do with all the people he shot. If he was out on bail that would pique my curiosity.

    Is it at lease possible that after days seeing post after post on blogs and facebook people would call bullshit on another person dragging out their novel hypothesis (pet peeve) and poorly associating it with a tragedy?

    I’m not afraid of this guy’s theoretical sanity or whatever set of conspiracy theories you’re implying. Im also not fascinated by every trivial factoid of this event. I am fatigued by the bandwagon effect and the concrete category of people who jump on it.

  13. #13 |  Dave Krueger | 

    I don’t find amateur psychoanalysis that disagreeable. Deny it all you want, but everyone analyzes the motives and intentions of people they come into contact with, see on the news, or hear about from other people. It’s practically a necessity to survive and succeed in life. If you’re a parent or an advice columnist, you do it a lot. We speculate on this blog daily about what motivates cops, prosecutors, and their victims.

    And given the history of professional psychiatry which cooks up and discards “disorders” by popular consensus and then freely (for a huge fee) sticks those labels on people (especially children) almost at random (do any two psychiatric diagnoses ever agree?), I don’t think the word “professional” necessarily carries a huge degree of scientific credibility in this particular field.

  14. #14 |  Steve Verdon | 

    Not sure I buy this “everyone gets a trophy” tope. Sure I goes on in some instances. However try swimming for kids. First – third, a medal. Fourth eighth a ribbon…after that, nada. At the larger meets the top 8 finishers get medals, the next 16 get consolation certificates (keep in mind that a single event can have over 100 swimmers). And they’ll DQ swimmers for messing up. Even little kids (5,6,7, and up) crying still get DQed for messing up a stroke. You either do it right or the race doesn’t count. And at the big meets if you miss your event…sorry, that was now your last event (including relays).

    However, the notion that “everyone is a winner” is something promoted in swimming, but with a different angle than giving everyone a meaningless medal or trophy. You “win” if you improve your times (often no trophy/medal). You “win” if you come in higher than your seed position (often no trophy/medal). You “win” if achieve a time standard goal that you set for yourself (often no trophy/medal). In other words, you “win” if you work hard at getting better and actually do get better and there isn’t always a trophy there if you do achieve your goal.

    I’m sure when kids get into other sports in a serious manner it is similar.

  15. #15 |  Steve Verdon | 

    the next 16 should be the next 8…basically the top 16 finishers at big meets get some sort of nod to their performance.

  16. #16 |  RT | 

    Holmes planned this long before he failed that test.

  17. #17 |  bill | 

    wow. if this article was serious , then, wow. If this was parody ,it was very poorly done.

  18. #18 |  Other Sean | 

    It’s not the article that’s a parody, it’s the thread.

    Whenever some cop does something vicious (or even just something stupid), the comment gallery here can’t psychoanalyze him fast enough. Everyone knows with total certainty that he must be a power-crazed, racist steroid abuser with a 3 inch dick and a 2.20 GPA. Go try to introduce a little nuance into one of those threads, and see where that gets you.

    But let a brand new guest blogger venture a bit of (perfectly cautious and perfectly polite) speculation about a current event, and HOLY FUCKING SHIT!, the intellectual quality control goon squad just appears out of nowhere, ready to smash down anything that falls short of peer review in a medical journal.

    And speaking of new things…when did you all discover this profound respect for and deference to the mental health industry? These are the same people who, for better than 40 years now, have done far more than their patriotic part in keeping the drug war alive.

    Whenever a behavior is deemed undesirable, they stand ready to classify it as a disease. Whenever an illegal drug is an danger of becoming socially accepted, they can be counted on to deliver new “research” proving that it is still, and always will be, the devil’s favorite poison. Whenever they’re not doing either of those things, they’re out pumping people full of legal but unproven drugs, in response to totally un-falsifiable diagnoses, on the way to an endless series of unsatisfactory patient outcomes.

    By all means, let’s hear what THEY have to say about James Holmes. They can’t keep letting us down, if we don’t keep letting them try!

    I mean, it’s not like Lenore Skenazy ever did anything positive for anyone’s mental health, by helping them develop the capacity for independent thought and action. It’s not like that at all.

  19. #19 |  Jess | 

    Lefty, the conspiracy is between your ears. Or perhaps lodged in them.

    I bet you’re a big Jim Bohannon fan.

  20. #20 |  Lefty | 

    Had to google him. Looks like a doofus.

  21. #21 |  Lefty | 

    I’m an Ed Brayton fan. Which is how I found my way here.

  22. #22 |  UvalDuvalCuckoo | 

    Man there’s a lot of Butthurt going on here. Other Sean hits a bullseye on this. I happened to think the post as a little stretch but many of the responses are ridiculous (how many other threads has Radley had to step into?) The Snotty comments about how not being complete a-holes == giving everyone a trophy is pretty lame too. Grading ONE freaking test on a small curve is hardly the same as putting a kid with a 50% average on the honor roll. The post is food for thought and from what I saw, it looked like something to just start a discussion. All the guest bloggers have been great and I’m willing to bet this one will be too.

  23. #23 |  Windy | 

    This link is to a poster (the paper kind) suggesting some kind of conspiracy. I don’t think I can buy into the kind of conspiracy suggested, but the differences between the before and after pics are striking. It is pretty obvious the pics are of the same dude (the ears, the beard line, the jaw, shape, the adam’s apple). What kind of incident do you suppose triggered the change in personality which caused him to color his hair; what happened to turn that easy smile into an expression of such pain, uncertainty and deep sadness? What was it that broke his mind? A mental illness? A physical illness? A tragic incident or accident? Or could there be something more sinister behind it?

  24. #24 |  Windy | 

    I intended to emphasize the word “could”, not saying I actually believe it (it is so far out there) but the photos do raise questions about the reason for such a rapid alteration.

  25. #25 |  el coronado | 

    Well, that’s one way to look at it, Windy. Mental illness, tragic accident…..Here’s another: maybe this was – to quote the *actual* Joker – “Aaallllll part of the _plannn_”. This was a guy with a genius-level IQ. He was certainly planning to get away: all reports I read mention he was taken at his still-idling car. He thoroughly booby-trapped his apt. for the cops he knew would be busting in. The only reason they knew to look for ’em was he told ’em they were there: maybe because he knew the cops would (literally) beat him to death if the bombs took out a cop or 10. But that’s ALL he told them: remember, he lawyered up instantly upon arrest – and he was arrested without resistance, despite being heavily armed. Once he was arrested, he employed every logical and legal means he could use to protect….him. Is that indicative of mental illness? Protecting his own sorry ass any way he could? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe he’s just a very bright sick fuck who should have been drowned at birth.

    And near as I can tell, no one ever remembers him acting nuts – save for a weird voicemail greeting – until after his arrest. Then & only then does he start acting and looking like he’s the real Joker. Spitting at guards. Asking how the movie ended. Appearing spacey and ‘not there’ in court. All of which can be easily faked, even by a non-genius.

    I submit – with no more evidence than any other internet schmo proclaiming the guy was schizo – I submit the crazy act he’s showing us now is his Plan B. “If I get caught, better to do the time in a mental institution, where odds are I’m *much* smarter than the docs who’ll be ‘treating’ me, than in a max-security hellhole prison. A prison where I’d be a target 24/7. If nothing else, I’d get lots of drugs: might be fun, & they’d sure help the time pass.”

  26. #26 |  Fnord | 

    Oh, come on.

    I just spent two weeks reminding people agitating for gun control, censorship of media violence, etc, that these types of events account for only a tiny fraction of the violence in the United States and also nothing new. Using them as commentary about popular trends or as motivations for policy is a bad idea.

  27. #27 |  FWB | 

    Want to see a sad sight? Watch a kid who has just entered college and fails that first exam. I’ve had so many just devastated ’cause “they always got A’s in school” and “they might lose their scholarship”. I just remind them college ain’t public school and tell them to go study.

    Life’s hard. It’s really hard when you are stupid. – John Wayne.

  28. #28 |  A. N. | 

    He did NOT buy a hi powered rifle. An AR15 may look scary to non-gun types but it is hardly hi powered. It shoots a .223 or 5.56×45 projectile which is tiny relative to nearly all other rifle cartridges.

    In fact, .223 is not legal in most states to hunt deer with because of the lack of killing power. Its typically used for small game and varmints.

    Let’s not parrot the anti-gun crowd’s ignorance with regard to firearms and phrases they don’t understand.

  29. #29 |  Articles for Saturday » Scott Lazarowitz's Blog | 

    […] Lenore Skenazy: Failure and the Batman Shooting Suspect […]

  30. #30 |  digamma | 

    Find a more substantive reason to post about the “everybody is a winner” syndrome, which has been so heavily reported that it’s become a cliche.

    In Bill James’s HIstorical Baseball Abstract, he put together sets of quotes from each era (going back to 1900 or so) saying that “the ballplayers of today” are not up to the standards of the previous generation. I suspect a similar principle holds for kids’ being coddled. The kids of today are always being unacceptably coddled.

  31. #31 |  Stormy Dragon | 

    and “they might lose their scholarship”.

    This is a legitimate concern. If we truly want kids to be able to learn from failure, then we need to provide an environment where they can fail. Financial ruin is not a natural consequence of failing a test.

  32. #32 |  Miranda | 

    I worked with inmates for over five years. Some of them I got to know very well, including their upbringing and family histories. None of them – not one – had his life screwed up by being uplifted or complimented too much. Quite the opposite, no on had ever told them they were special or mattered. They never won a damn thing.