I was watching the last inning of my son’s little league game when the team mom from the opposing squad started laying out the end of season trophies on the picnic table next to the dug-out. They were small and unassuming. But they were trophies. A celebration of an accomplishment-participation. A man sitting next to snorted. He was a few years younger then me. I’m 40-ish.
“Everybody gets a trophies.” he said shaking his head in disgust. “That’s the problem with kids these days…they expect it.”
That triggered a memory for me and then a thought. I grew up in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I played little league, and football, and basketball, and hockey and just about every organized sport that you could play from the time I was 7 until I eventually stopped to focus on the sport I would play in college. And I remembered something about those years. I got trophies, or plaques or varsity letters for just about every one of them, every season, whether we won or not. And then I thought to myself, I don’t think this is new.
I remembered something else. A rant on Facebook from a grade-school friend of mine, complaining about the kids in his son’s middle school.
“All these little punks ever do is sit there and play video games.”
Which triggered another memory for me-sitting in front of the TV with my brother in our living room, playing Atari, and then Nintendo, and then Sega for hours on end. Atari came out in 1977-Nintendo in 1985. As best as I can remember, when I wasn’t playing sports and getting participation trophies, I was playing video games. And so were all of my friends. This wasn’t new.
There’s a peculiar game going on right now. It’s not new either. It’s one that’s likely been going on since old people lived long enough to be threatened by the generations that came after them. And I’m not that interested in playing it.
I’m not sure if anyone has taken a look at the fall-out of all these “participation trophy’s” or this overly sensitive coddling approach that we have to our young. But there’s something frightening about what it’s doing to our kids. It’s making them alarmingly capable of living successfully in the future. It’s making them better than us.
I’m going to force some objective thinking that I haven’t really seen on this topic- beyond the preachy gas-bag approach those of us who have earned the title of adult have taken. I’ll take a swing by simply taking a look at a few things. Let’s start with youth sports. And for me, I don’t have to look far to see clear proof that these kids are light years ahead.
My particular Southern California suburb has a startling success at one of the broadest played youth sports in the world-Little League. The handful of leagues in our town have collectively sent 3 teams to the semi-finals for the U.S. Championships in Williamsport in the last 5 years. Twice, they won the U.S. Little League championship. One of those teams won the world championships. Statistically speaking, that should take a town over 500 years. It took mine five. So I’ve had the opportunity to observe what kids these days can do, and it’s crazy. Every single one of them is better than anyone I ever played with. They throw sliders and change-ups and kids that are 75lbs crack home runs with humbling regularity. It’s insane. And they are crazy focused on getting better. And winning. And they all got trophies. All the time. And it’s not just my town or just baseball. Go watch an AAU basketball game and watch college coaches show up to watch 7th graders play. They’re better than anything that came before them. Coddling and all.
I’ve listened to a few professional athletes call out the “problem” with what kids these days. I wonder exactly what era these old pros grew up in. Most pro athletes in America graduated high school with in the last 10 years. They seem to be recalling a time that was measurably different from now, playing stick ball on the streets waiting to get letters from their dad who was off fighting the Germans. It’s really a fascinating dynamic.
Here’s the point. You could give every one of those kids trophies before and after every game. It’s not putting out the fire they have to compete if it’s burning. Nothing will. That’s not how it works. But it will keep them interested if perhaps they were sitting on the fence. And interest is the point. It makes for a better childhood. And better adults.
The same thing happens in the corporate world. I hear my generation of leaders complaining about how they just can’t relate to the younger generation. Perhaps because we’re not smart enough. Kids these days entering into the workforce have been tested more, given more homework and taken more advanced placement courses than any generation in history. We make two and a half times the college graduates, per capita, then we did in our grandparents generation. We have double the women in the workforce, twice the high school graduation rate etc, etc.. My seven year old is fluent in Spanish and English and reading at grade level in both. I barely speak English in the house…or Spanish. And there’s three classes full of him at our school. I could do almost nothing my kids can do academically at their age. It’s not close. And I went to the hardest college in the country to get in to.
Recently, I sat across from a junior marketing analyst in a meeting. I’m the guy that runs the business he works in. And he sliced me to pieces by demanding a data driven approach to my strategy that I didn’t have answers to. He was 24. Born in 1992. And I’ve hired a room full of him in the last few years. I’ve had more old guys fall off the end of the bench then young kids who just couldn’t play. And most who actually have to get this right will tell you the same thing.
So, I’ve stated my case. There’s nothing wrong with kids these days. But there’s something predictably wrong about their parents.
Somewhere in our mammalian brains, we have a desire to hold on to dominance. We need to remain relevant-the top of the heap. The world is unkind to primates who have been knocked off their pedestal by the generation that comes after. So we have to invent the narrative. That kids these days are no good. And that things when we were growing up were much harder. And we learned through hard lessons the value of earning our place. And that’s why we’re better. That’s why we’re not likely be taken over by the next generation.
We will though. We always have.
Thinking that way for amusement is fairly harmless. Until we start to believe that narrative and parent differently-holding back acknowledgment, praise and recognition. Or practicing other “tough love” exercises.
If you take some time look into the science behind things related to this topic, you learn a very quick lesson. Horrible, miserable existences in youth, yield horrible miserable existences in life. Not all the time. But enough that if you care about your kids, you’ll avoid it. If you doubt that, I urge you to contact any family active in the foster program in America.
This coddling, this “everyone gets a trophy” mentality is actually not quite the devil that we think it is. At a first glance, we may view it as teaching entitlement. But that’s not really how it works. The human brain and how it develops has been studied for a long time. And in doing so, we’ve learned a few things. Mostly we’ve learned about the path the brain takes in development and what types of ways it tends to go awry.
When we’re really young, we really only care about getting our needs met. And when they are met, we develop trust and the ability to form normal relationships with the world. When we don’t, we have problems. For those that don’t develop that trust they see the world as one massive opportunity to burn through in order to get their needs met. And in those rare times when those poor people find someone willing to meet them, they abuse them until they’ve assured themselves that they’ve gotten all they can from them. It’s not good to crap on kids. It doesn’t make them stronger. But it is good to reward them.
Rest easy. It won’t make them entitled. That horrible sense of entitlement is just something that healthy young people have. And they grow out of it. And when they don’t have it at all, that entitlement to have their needs met, they’re broken. Not all the time, but enough. And it’s not caused by trophies.
So what does happen when we give people trophies? Well, there’s a multi-billion dollar industry built on the answer to that question. When we reward people, we make them do what it is that they just did to get that reward, a lot more. Don’t believe it? Well, that little red number on the top of your Facebook page, the one that pops up when someone reacts to something you’ve done, is powerful proof that we humans crave recognition.
If you haven’t heard the term “gamification” then you haven’t been to business school recently. Much of the consumer based internet environment is based on positive reinforcement for engagement-no matter how little it may seem. That’s what keeps us engaged. And when it’s your job to make money for an organization, you are accountable only for coming up with things that work. And we software folks are training you to engage with our products by giving you silly little acknowledgements. Like a red number on the top left part of your page. A trophy. For participation. And you eat it up and come back for more. And that’s really the trick with our kids. Getting them to come back for more of the good things-like sports.
So here’s the problem with kids these days. Nothing. At least not anything new. And the trophies? They’re grounded in more positive psychology than most of us are willing to research. So give it a rest. I’d rather ask the question, what’s wrong with adults these days?
We’re about to turn over a world, or at least a nation of insolvent governments, catastrophic environmental conditions, no sustainable plan for medical or retirement benefits and laughable presidential candidates. What I’m about to hand over to my kids is a hell of a lot worse than what was handed to me 20 years ago. So go ahead and crap on the next generation if you have to. You may feel better about your place in the world and your own “self determined” accomplishments. It’s all an illusion though, formed in the base of your primate mind, aimed at convincing yourself you’ll hold on just a bit longer. So I’ll suggest something else.
Learn from what’s right with kids these days. And share in their success. They’re not perfect but don’t do that thing that failing people do-dismiss something for what’s wrong with it instead of embracing what’s right with it. This is the generation we’re leaving the future of mankind to. Spend a little more time building them up and a little less time tearing them down. There’s wisdom in the success of our youth. And so there’s wisdom in yielding to it.