The headline on our local paper reads, “A few rotten eggs spoil Easter Hunt.” Parents, who were supposed to stay behind the ropes at an egg hunt event for young children, leapt into the kid fray, scooping up eggs for their young children to make sure they got — what?
The most? This wasn’t a competition.
The best? All the eggs were the same ubiquitous plastic eggs you can get at any discount store.
The biggest? Nope. The eggs were all the same.
And what difference does any of that make anyway? Most-best-biggest wasn’t the point. The point was for little kids in a small town to have fun on a spring morning. With 18,000 eggs out there, there were plenty for all. A few too-eager, too-competitive parents tramping around in a kid event was an example of parents gone wild.
Oh, these parents meant well. They meant to help. They meant for their kids not to have to suffer disappointment. They wanted to protect their children from any anxiety about getting their share. But such good intentions played out in this way have unintended consequences. As they watch their parents intrude, the kids learn things that their parents may regret.
Kids really do learn from what they see and feel as much as from what we say. In psychology, we call this meta-communication — the message that underlies the verbal message and may even contradict it. It’s like sarcasm. “That’s a really pretty dress,” said with sincere warmth, is a compliment. Said with a sarcastic sneer, the same words mean the opposite — something like, “That dress isn’t pretty at all and you’re a fool for wearing it.”
Telling kids that it’s important to share, that they should watch out for those smaller than they are, that it’s not who wins but how they play the game all sounds great.
But when parents couple those messages with behaviors that contradict the words, the kids read the actions. The kids who watched the adults snatch up eggs at the Easter Hunt were taking note, especially if the adults were the kids’ own parents.
They got a clear message that getting the most is more important than all the other values adults might talk about. They learned that the rules aren’t really the rules if you’re big. They learned that their parents had little faith in their ability to even pick up a few eggs.
My guess is that the parents who were scrambling to get the plastic eggs are the same parents who will jeer the umpire at a Little League game, do their kids’ homework, and write their teens’ college admission essays. Their kids may end up with the most “toys” in the guise of plastic eggs or A’s on homework or admission to an elite school, but they also learn that winning by cheating is okay, that they don’t have what it takes to accomplish things on their own, that they can count on their parents to do the work.
Lessons from an Easter Egg Hunt for Parents
There are better lessons. Consider these:
- Children who collect their own eggs (or A’s or entrance into college) learn that they are capable human beings. With each success, they become less dependent on their parents and more able to stand on their own two feet. They learn to take initiative, to be responsible, and to work independently. Perhaps most important, they learn to take pride in what they do.
- When children master challenges over time, they develop confidence in their own competence. With each success, the competence grows, which then leads to even more self-confidence. This competence to confidence to competence cycle will help them develop the positive self-esteem that is necessary for taking on new challenges throughout life.
- Children whose parents teach them the importance of doing things honestly, whether by collecting their own eggs or struggling with math homework, are children who will continue to live their lives with integrity.
- Children who respect the rights of others, who make way for the other guy, who maybe even give some of their eggs to a kid who didn’t get many, are kids who will become good citizens in the world.
- Children whose parents help them strategize before taking part in an event or doing an assignment or writing an essay learn to think ahead, to consider alternatives, and to plan. These are all important life skills.
- Children who are helped to understand what went well and what didn’t after an event or a homework assignment or a college interview master the art of learning from mistakes. When parents make such conversations a learning opportunity instead of a scold, their children learn that mistakes can be a source of information, not shame. They learn that there is value in the process as well as in the end result.
After this year’s debacle, there were adults who were ready to give up this annual tradition. To their credit, the recreational services staff refused. They aren’t ready to let a few rotten apples, er, eggs, ruin the event for all. After sitting with some disappointment and anger for awhile, they regrouped and vowed to make next year’s event even better.
Sadly, they can’t count on the parents who were so inappropriate this year to either reform or to stay away. Instead, they will have to recruit more volunteers to cordon off the field and be stricter about the rules. Hopefully, it won’t take riot police to keep order. We certainly don’t want little kids to learn that some parents only obey rules and let kids have their own fun when someone with even more authority is watching.
That would be a sad meta-communication indeed.