Monday, June 20, 2011

What Happens When the "Everyone Gets a Trophy" Generation Fails?

As I have been coaching both of my daughters in softball for the past nine years, it invariably happens every game. A girl will strike out by weakly waving at a pitch two feet over her head... and then I'll hear it... Out of the stands or even from another coach, "Nice try! Way to go! Good job!" with the gratuitous clap.

I stand next to the dugout and think to myself, "Um. No.... that wasn't a good job."

Now don't get me wrong. I believe in giving praise to kids in my role as a parent, educator, and coach. To my girls who strike out or botch a play, sometimes I like to give them give perspective that this is only a game, and I'll usually remark, "Let's get 'em next time."

But false praise in the face of failure? Never.

As a coach, I stress the same things that I do as a teacher, namely: Learn from your mistakes. Effort = Achievement, so practice and you'll get better. Hard work makes all of the difference.

To be sure, those lessons were taught to me by my parents and my teachers. It was an era that was less politically correct, one where there was less emphasis on cultivating a child's self esteem and more on teaching life's lessons- where there are winners and losers and natural consequences.

This point is driven home in the cover story of the July-August 2011 issue of The Atlantic. This captivating piece, entitled, "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," details the repercussions of what is becoming more commonplace: parents' obsession with their children's happiness. The author, psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, traces how the generation of young people in their late teens and twenties (commonly referred to as "millenials") are increasingly unable to handle adversity in life due to over-parenting. The end results are young adults who are anxious, withdrawn, and/or depressed while seemingly having all of the external trappings (e.g., great job, good salary, positive relationships, etc.) of a successful life.

The article describes some disturbing trends. First, college professors and administrators at competitive schools now refer to some freshmen students as "teacups" because without their hovering parents to ward off the pressures of school, they are very fragile and crack under the slightest pressure. Second, Gottlieb describes (see video below) an increasing phenomenon that today's employers cite. Twenty-something aged employees report that they feel "unappreciated" and devalued because they are not receiving praise from their bosses when they do a good job... over things that are in their job description!

As Gottlieb points out, sometimes failure for children is a very good thing, as it is part of the natural growth process. However, helicopter parenting does not allow this to take place.

Will the pendulum ever swing back the other way? From my perspective as a principal for the past 13 years, I see it getting worse. I have dealt with many cases throughout the years- from ones of discipline to academic integrity- where parents will "go to bat" for their child at all costs fully knowing that their child is in the wrong. With increasing regularity I hear appeals of administrative decisions for that very reason.

I also wonder if in K-12 public education we are part of the problem vis-a-vis "everyone getting a trophy"? In an era of grade inflation at all levels, do we feed the beast as evidenced by practices that lead to endless honor rolls and too many awards for kids?

All kids should- and can- achieve rigorous content and performance standards, but are they achieving them to the degree that we say they are? Nationally, the follow-up data tells a mixed story when looking at measures such as the number of freshmen in remediation courses and college graduation rates.

Are we all that parent in the stands, clapping and yelling "Good job!" for something less than that?


  1. great to know you're out there. one of these days we'll say enough is enough and the pendulum will start to swing in the other direction.