My dad, who’s in his mid-nineties, grew-up in a cold water flat in Yonkers, NY. As a second generation immigrant, hot water and baths were not a staple of his family’s living conditions; they went to the public baths for that service. As a Russian Christian, his family celebrated Christmas on January 7, often taking a discarded on-the-street Christmas tree for their home. And he was called a number of racial epithets for his Russian ancestry by all sorts other working poor and lower-middle class neighbors.
When the Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he and his buddies volunteered for the US Military service. It wasn’t uncommon then; he was a proud American and felt it was his duty and an honor to serve his country. After being away from home for 39 months, with no leave, from the age of 20 to 23, he returned stateside. The Army wanted him to work for the State Department given his ancestry and the coming Cold War with the Soviets, and offered to send him to Georgetown or Cornell, but after all the time away, he just wanted to go home, and return to civilian life like thousands of other World War II GIs. I imagine his experience to be very much like the stories depicted in William Wyler’s multi-Oscar winner, The Best Years of Our Lives.
In his lifetime, he gradually used some of the new technologies available to him: hot water in his home, the telephone (wired), a radio, television, an automobile (my mother taught him to drive) and newer things arriving later in his life. Today he does use a mobile phone as his primary communication device because he can hear better with it. He does have an iPad, but uses it only to check stocks. He has no Internet in his apartment, where he lives in a wheelchair a good amount of the time by himself (and his preference). He’s never used a PC.
My dad married and went on to have three children and eight grandchildren. He worked at Otis Elevator for thirty years, towards the end also working as a bartender on nights and weekends to help support his family, pay for Catholic schools for his kids, and eventually contribute to their colleges. My dad was and is many things: funny, sarcastic, intelligent, hard-working, opinionated, off-color, direct, loud, and responsible. But he was never, ever entitled.
I’m a parent and touched on raising kids in a prior post. I’m by no means an expert and constantly am learning what to do and what not to do. And until you fully understand someone’s circumstances, you can’t make a snap parenting judgment. Yet both from direct observation, and some recent articles, I worry our new age of entitlement, driven by the home as well as institutions, has a horrible bearing on our youth and their future.
One article in The New Republic, from a former admissions director at Yale, questions the value of an Ivy League education. (Disclosure: my MBA is from Cornell.) The author, William Deresiewicz, makes a number of compelling arguments about the downside of the economic class system of elite universities and their faux meritocracy. He does point out that this is really what the universities are selling, all gobbled-up by Upper Middle Class parents eager to keep up with the Joneses and feed their own hopes and desires. As he notes, “It doesn’t matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.” He doesn’t say this, but isn’t “elitism” just another “ism” to be lessened?
He is what he does say:
The truth is that the meritocracy was never more than partial…Kids at schools like Stanford think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan, or if one plays the cello and the other lacrosse. Never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers.
I remember being at my undergraduate school in the late 1980s and seeing a girl wear a tie-dye shirt. Remarking on its brilliance (the colors, not her “statement” of wearing a tie-dye), she responded back, “I’m wearing it to be different.” As I looked about on the dustbowl, the green lawn where students gathered on that warm spring day, and saw many, many students wearing a similar shirt, I thought to myself: Yes, you’re being different just by being like everyone else.
In this world of economic sameness at these elite universities, he highlights from the rising college students (but really for the parents and prospective parents of college students) a not-so-tough, but very key question: “Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit? I don’t have a satisfying answer, short of telling them to transfer to a public university.”
Mr. Deresiewicz also points out:
Religious colleges—even obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coasts—often do a much better job in that respect [teaching students to think]. What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.
You can read two reviews of Frank Bruni, New York Times columnist’s new book, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” for more of the zaniness of some of these parents and their pursuit of the Elite Education from the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Obviously those who enroll can receive great educations from these schools, and luminaries, business executives and many world leaders with the pedigree from these elite universities support the “results” of those educations to the general public and parents of those prospective university students. What parent does not want the “best” for his or her child? But I’d argue the title of Mr. Bruni’s book, as well as his substance of his book, remains true, and the “best” can be had on many other campuses, too.
In this rush to get into the elite colleges and universities, and once a student is there, perhaps the curriculum needs to be updated to allow for wider perspective, and dare I say it, discuss ideas and values, the “teaching students to think” message that may be getting lost?
Perhaps, not ironically, Wesleyan President Michael Roth points out religion’s role in the history of ideas, even in a secular classroom. Stressing the importance of engaging with what his students read, “That’s what I want to offer my students, the opportunity to wrestle with basic questions of love and judgment, justice and violence, grace and forgiveness. What they believe is none of my business, but I do want them to have a sense of what it’s like to be absorbed in robust traditions, including religious ones.”
And in another New York Times opinion piece, Justin P. McBrayer, an assistant professor at Fort Collins College in Colorado, bemoans the misleading distinction between fact and opinion embedded in the Common Core. For example, killing people or cheating on tests are not opinions, in his view. He summarizes that “our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.” It’s a fair debate, as we educate our youth, and hopefully give them something more than just “facts” to be stored.
I am neither pro nor anti-Common Core, but I mostly agree with his conclusion:
Facts are things that are true. Opinions are things we believe. Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not. Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct.
Maybe it’s not just the curriculums in school that are missing the mark. Maybe it all starts in the home, with some parents and their approach, just like their frenzied pursuit for elite college admission. Despite all the good intentions, we may be building a generation of entitled narcissists.
There has long been a focus on children’s self-esteem. As noted in this Business Insider piece, it was breakthrough thinking in 1969 from Canadian psychologist Nathaniel Branden, in “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” where he noted that self-esteem “has profound effects on a man’s thinking processes, emotions, desires, values, and goals” and that “it is the single most significant key to his behavior.”
However in his publication in 1996, and later in “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?” published in 2003, Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister pointed out the dangers of self-esteem. He noted “that the self-esteem movement encourages a praise-only approach to raising kids, which he believes is no more effective than the criticism-only approach from former eras…Instead of relying on either extreme, parents, teachers, and perhaps even bosses may want to consider praising good behavior and condemning bad behavior, even if it’s ‘harmful to self-esteem.’ ”
And I do believe this sharpened focus on self-esteem, whether it’s only praise and never correcting behaviors that should be corrected, or even the insidious, ubiquitous trophies for “participation” let alone accomplishment, fosters this sense of entitlement. If you “overvalue” little Johnny or Caitlin too early, you may be dealing with a narcissist later, according to this article from Naomi Schaefer Riley. She writes about why parents today are doing too much praising, and what can result from it:
Praising kids and doing as much as we can for them is actually easier — in the short term. When I asked Caitlin Flanagan, author of “Girl Land,” why parents continue to go this route, though, she suggested it might be a little more self-serving. Parents continue to offer praise rather than make kids do things for themselves “because it binds their kids to them.”
Flanagan says kids today “don’t separate from their parents in adolescence!” She observes, “There’s no more ‘My parents don’t understand me.’ Now it’s ‘My parents are THE ONLY PEOPLE who understand me. They’re the only people who consistently tell me what a very special snowflake I am.’ ”
And that kind of dependence on Mom and Dad — while it is annoying for college administrators, not to mention employers — keeps parents in the picture. Says Flanagan: “It’s a way for the parents to stay as vital through their kids’ adolescences as they were through their early years. There’s a whole generation of college kids who are emotionally dependent on their parents for their ‘self-esteem.’ ”
Want kids who are a little tougher than that? You need to be tougher now.
One antidote, hearkening back to my father’s upbringing in the 1920s and the Depression, as well as his living and fighting in the Pacific in a foxhole against Axis forces, both a derivative from survival strategies than parenting ones, is a focus on chores. Chores, in some way, according to Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, have taken a back seat to sports/travel teams and academics for our youth, with significant consequences – “Decades of studies show the benefits of chores—academically, emotionally and even professionally.” She notes the importance of allocating chores at an early age to “to build a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility and self-reliance.” I absolutely love her tips at the end of the article, which I plan on adopting:
- Watch your language. In a study of 149 3-to-6-year-olds in the journal Child Development last year, researchers found that thanking young children for “being a helper,” as opposed to “helping,” significantly increased their desire to pitch in. They were motivated by the idea of creating a positive identity—being known as someone who helps.
- Schedule chore time. Write chores into the calendar, right next to the piano lesson and soccer practice, to maintain consistency.
- Game it. Like a videogame, start small and have young children earn new “levels” of responsibilities, like going from sorting clothes to earning the right to use the washing machine.
- Keep allowances and chores separate. Research suggests that external rewards can actually lower intrinsic motivation and performance. With chores, psychologists say that money can lessen a child’s motivation to help, turning an altruistic act into a business transaction.
- Types of tasks matter. To build prosocial behavior like empathy, chores should be routine and focused on taking care of the family (like dusting the living room or doing everyone’s laundry), not self-care (tidying one’s bedroom or doing personal laundry). Psychologists add that involving children in choosing the tasks makes them more likely to buy in.
- Talk about chores differently. For better cooperation, instead of saying, “Do your chores,” Dr. Rende suggests saying, “Let’s do our chores.” This underscores that chores are not just a duty but a way of taking care of each other.
- Give chores a PR boost. Don’t tie chores to punishments. Keep any talk about chores, including your own, positive or at least neutral. If you complain about doing the dishes, so will your children.
It’s amazing to think of all the technical advances in my father’s almost one hundred years on this earth – advances which for the most part have significantly enriched human life and made its tasks easier. But with some of this wondrous technical evolution, I’m not sure if we have also taken a few steps backward in how we are preparing the next generation. As the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, from building up Junior’s self-esteem, to ensuring Chelsea is well-rounded with lots of activities and travel teams, to ensuring they both get into the right schools, where they will learn a healthy dose of facts but perhaps not enough value judgments, critical thinking, or understanding what is right and what is wrong, and which will guarantee they meet the right people to set them up for the perceived right level of success, we may be missing the proverbial forest for the trees.
While it may not fully be Nietzsche’s view of “that which does not kill me makes me stronger,” I’m guessing some hard work, chores, true understanding of failure and accomplishment, and a healthy dose of parental restraint of subjugating their own needs to keep up with the Joneses, may, just may, help us avoid an extended age of Entitlement.
I’d much prefer one of Enlightenment, for students, parents, and educators.