While many books and articles label young people today as the narcissistic “Me Generation”, we must be careful not to overlook the roots of this condition. As a society, we have participated in creating a culture that has unknowingly stripped children of some essential human rights. Childhood is a sacred learning process, designed with appropriate struggles to enable growth. Current research shows that the ‘everybody gets a trophy’ parenting philosophy didn’t have its intended effect. Millenials are reporting more anxiety and depression than any other generation in this country’s history. Most agree that the reason for this dissatisfaction is the gap between this generation’s high expectation of personal fulfillment on one side of the spectrum and the actual reality at the other.
This gap, coupled with the superficial tendencies of the ‘selfie’ technologies, has set our young people up for disappointment. The good news is that there is a solution. When we give ownership of childhood, with both its joys and its struggles, back to our children then this anxiety dragon will diminish. Scientific and spiritual belief systems hold one primary principle as a universal truth: the key to human contentment rests with accountability for what we can control and acceptance of what we cannot. Pain and failure are often the best catalysts for growth. The absence of challenges does not make an individual stronger, it delays the process of growth.
Most of us have read the characterizations of the generations preceding the Millenials. The ‘Greatest Generation’ of WWII, the Baby boomers that followed, and the Gen Xers share a success drive, yet the focus of each generation has gotten progressively more individualized. The ‘greater good’ mentality of the war era has gradually shifted to the ‘good for me’ mentality. Congruently, our expectations regarding a quality life have shifted from ‘survival and security’ to making personal ‘dreams come true’. As economic and cultural tides have changed, we now face threats to promises of unbounded opportunity. The widespread anxiety related to college acceptance has prompted families and schools to emphasize perfect student records. These records must be untarnished with any ” B’s”, and boast lengthy listings of clubs and activities, regardless of any real commitment to the cause.
This race for an impressive paper trail has made our learning experiences and value systems nearly as fragile as the paper on which it each is written. To illustrate, before the onset of ‘college acceptance anxiety’, elementary school students came home with report cards reflecting actual performance in class. Most children were expected to earn “C’s”, with a smaller percentage earning grades on the other ends of the bell curve. Families did not expect every child in the household to earn straight “A’s”, but of course encouraged each child to work to their potential. Today this is not the expectation.
Today’s elementary school parents fear that “Cs” on the report card now mean “C’s” on the transcript later, which, in turn, means fewer college opportunities. This fear has prompted parents to take ownership of the learning process at a very young age. Nervous parents place pressure on their children, and their children’s teachers, for “A’s”. As a result, children are divested from this high stakes process. They become passive, reporting that, “my mom didn’t put my homework in my backpack”, rather than owning any sense of accountability for the work, and ultimately, the grade. Somewhere along the line ‘the grade’ has become synonymous with ‘the value’ of the human child rather than a separate measurement for the quality of the work produced.
The “A” child has become a symbol of good parenting, not a reflection of true learning. By creating the expectation that only A’s are valued, we rob schools of meaningful tools to guide student progress. There are those among us who reject traditional grading, which is another discussion for another time, but whether we measure by letter grades, numbers, narratives, checklists or progress charts, the point is that students must own the struggle, and adults must authentically assess the work.
Beyond accountability for one’s own work, this era of anxiety has also affected the behavioral growth of our students. The quest for the untarnished record now also applies to behavioral matters. As parents, we have tools to guide behavior at home such as grounding, removing a privilege etc. At school, teachers have traditionally employed tools like detentions or demerits. More and more, educators see push back from parents when a child behaves inappropriately at school. I cannot count the number of times a family has asked me to have a particular consequence ‘not apply’ to their child, even upon an admitted wrongdoing. Mistakes are essential for learning and consequences are essential for changing behavior. We must reclaim the ability to have honest communication between parents and schools, realizing we are on the same team, united in our messaging to the student. This applies to academic advancement, as well as social and emotional learning. Ownership of the process is a prerequisite to any type of progress.
The perfect storm of the past few decades has seen the rise of over-protective parenting and the decline of economic security; it has also seen a rise in ‘living the good life’ expectations, but a decline in personal accountability. This widening gap produces anxiety. To quiet this growing beast, we need to have faith that our young people can handle reality. If college opportunities are harder to come by, then our children should be a part of the solution. The solution requires facing facts and doing the heavy lifting. Students are capable of doing so much more than we have trusted them to do. Instead of keeping them occupied with meaningless busywork and dispensing “A’s” for mere ‘participation’, we must empower them to be the masters of their own growth. The learning dynamic must refocus on the modern environment. Our powerful technological tools have kept students distracted with image crafting and shallow social media pursuits, but together we can change that. These new tools can open the world to meaningful dialogue and meaningful student work.
Adults are meant to guide students to find their inner drive, but too much time has been spent unknowingly crafting a superficial, untarnished ‘school record’. While we adults have been busy worrying about our children’s futures, they have been distracted by social media. By the time they are teenagers, students care most about living up to social ideals, or escaping from them, based on external valuations. Social media sites have exploded, prompting kids to search for massive amounts of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ rather than actual interactions with true friends. Their digital paper trail is a mirror of this quest for the ideal- yet also ‘unreal’ story of their life. Millenials have picked up on our parental fear that external indicators are more important than intrinsic motivations and authenticity.
To put the dragon of anxiety ultimately to rest, adults and children have to face our fears. Doing well in school is a wonderful goal, yet our progress should be evaluated based on meaningful, student-centered criteria. Attending college is a wonderful goal, yet doing well there requires student accountability. Being successful and happy beyond college is also a wonderful goal, but what that looks like for each individual will be based on his or her attitude and circumstances. As teachers, parents and students, we must ask the hard questions. If teachers are giving grades that students have not earned, if parents are asking teachers not to hold their sons or daughters accountable for behavioral mistakes, and if students are detached from the work required to walk their own path, then we are feeding the anxiety dragon. It is time to realize that our dragons are imaginary beasts – shadows on a wall, monsters in a closet, that become more powerful when we surrender to fear. The future becomes brighter when we shine the light on what the future really is: a happily ever after of the individual’s own making. Not everyone’s story looks the same. Each person in any generation has triumphs and tears, the trick is be true to ourselves, work for the outcomes we desire, and let others do the same.