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I was asked recently about the “Me” generation and how parents might help their children to be less self-centered.
Working in post-secondary education for the past thirteen years, I’ve heard plenty of complaints about the self-centeredness of the generation born since 1980: “They feel entitled.” “They don’t care about anyone but themselves.” “They’re totally unrealistic about how great they are.” Naturally, not everyone in that age category deserves to be dumped into the same pile. In fact, we’re talking about far less than half of the population. But I can’t pretend I don’t know what people are talking about when, for example, I have a student come to me saying, “I don’t know why you’re flunking me. You just don’t like me.”
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly before I reply, “You never turned in your mid-term examination or eleven assignments, you either text or sleep through class when you’re present, and you never bothered to buy the textbook. What grade did you expect?”
She glares at me and answers, “I deserve an ‘A’.”
How do young people come to be unrealistic in their views of themselves? They’ve basked in praise that was too lavish, too glittering—praise they didn’t deserve, and now they believe it. Like some celebrities, they’ve come to believe their own publicity.
How can you protect your own darlings from ending up in the pile? My mother used to tell me if you love your children enough, you can’t really make a mistake. And it follows that if you eat only those foods you really enjoy, they’ll be healthy for you.
I think not. Love is certainly a great beginning point, but we’re talking about starting human beings, not bean sprouts. (Even bean sprouts do better if the gardener knows a little about how to nurture them.) This parenting job is COMPLICATED. First, children need praise—realistic praise, praise based on what they do. “Good for you, Jessica. You went poopie in the potty” (or whatever words you like to use). Of course, we have to consider whether Jessica is developed enough to be able to control her potty habits. If she is, we celebrate—especially if she also understands the “…in the potty” part. I remember my little sister presenting her latest achievement to my mother in front of Mom’s church group. Oops.
As children age, we tend to wander away from praise based on behavior. “Jessica, you’re special. You can do anything.” Jessica beams. She is loved. But you didn’t tell her she was loved. You told her she’s special. She can do anything. Really? Maybe you should’ve said she’s special to you. That would be true. She isn’t going to be special to her kindergarten teacher. The teacher has seen thousands of beautiful cherubs. He’s going to compare Jessica to the other children. Can Jessica do anything? Can she count? Can she associate letters with sounds? Does she play well with others? Suddenly, there are standards. And Jessica isn’t going to be exceptional at everything. She’s a little person with strengths and weaknesses. You fibbed a little.
But are you the one to make your love conditional—dependent on whether your darling meets standards? I hope not. Love is for the little person, the little soul (if you will) before you. That love should be unconditional. At the soul level, she can never fail you. But she can definitely do things that will drive you crazy. She can be mean to other children. That’s when you talk about behavior. “Jessica, when you hit Manuel, he doesn’t want to play with you anymore. You have to sit over here by yourself until you can play nicely.” You do your best to teach her consequences. Research suggests that you’ll have an easier time teaching a little girl to be sensitive to others during these early years than you would a little boy, but exceptions abound.
Later in life, Jessica will need to understand that talents are only precious when they’re polished. They need work. Jessica needs to be willing to expend effort for the results she wants—in almost anything—school, sports, music, art, friends, etc. Even if she starts out way ahead of the pack, many will soon catch up and maybe surpass her if she isn’t working at improving. If her talents aren’t obvious, she may need help finding those interests that tap into her particular abilities. Schools aren’t always good at helping identify positive potentials that aren’t related to academics. You may need to provide opportunities for Jessica to explore. You want to empower an independent future for her.
She also needs to understand that the world consists of lots of people–each one the star of his own life. Each one needs support. Jessica will need to work well with others without compromising her values. She needs to realize that we live in a web that connects us in subtle and unpredictable ways. We need people who aren’t like us to balance our world.
When you’re a parent, you have to think hard about what kind of big person you hope your little person will one day be. And if that doesn’t happen in spite of your best efforts, you need to remember that each person is given free will to make individual choices. Each person is born with certain challenges and advantages built-in. It’s not all about you. But realistic praise is a good tool.