A Concern for a Culture that Rewards too Much

I’ve been struggling with a cultural issue I’m seeing, and I thought I’d write a little about it to get your thoughts.

A decade ago, I entered a world to help teenagers be successful in life.  From a whole life perspective, I’ve dedicated much of my writing, speaking, and interpersonal mentoring so that students can navigate the hardest time of transition in their existence.  Early on, I received calls that went something like:  “Can you help us, our student is addicted to ____________.”  Or, “Is there a program where my student can go to learn more about _______________?”

Today, the phone calls I’m getting are from families with boys (primarily) who are stuck in the basement of the family home without any ambition.  They don’t have a lot of drive to get out in the “real world” for whatever reason, and parents are asking, “So what do I do with “Johnny” now?”

These boys are usually in the demographic of 19-23 years old, and I’m wondering WHAT IS GOING ON? Most of the men have graduated from University, or are in some level of post-secondary school programs.  Most come from homes that you would never guess. They have good education, they have high econimic standing in their community, the students aren’t trouble makers, they’re just apatheitc about moving on to the next chapter in life.   Parents have taken lead roles in helping them be successful, but I’m starting to think our parenting norms are somehow enabling the problems we’re seeing.  Here’s what I mean.

The Passion Argument

I was talking with a father a few days ago, and he brought up a really good point.  “In my day you got a job because it paid for you to live.  Today, our students are being told they have to discover their passion in life and follow their heart.  How in the world is an 19 year old supposed to understand his passion, and then come to this realization that he is studying for what he wants to do the rest of his life?”

I’d never thought about that before.

I’ve always thought it’s better to help students discover their passion early, and then figure out how to mentor them to that place where they don’t have to wake up everyday in a dull job.  But there’s a really good point here.  Somewhere we’ve individualized the workforce, and our future is being decided by this enormous pressure to figure out who we are younger and younger.  Of course I see the pluses and minuses in both arguments, but I’m wondering, Are we putting too much pressure on our students at earlier and earlier ages?

The Trophy Culture

I was watching Bryant Gumbel’s show Real Sports the other night and they were doing a story on the Trophy culture.  Here’s a little snippet.

At the end of the report, there was an interview with a Neurosurgeon who was calculating the impact of pleasure/reward sensors in a young child’s brain.  I was incredibly drawn to the fact that the more we reward our children, the more they need rewarding.  In other words, when you live your whole life getting rewarded for things other than the accomplishment at the end of a struggle, you’re actually numbing the reward center for other things in life.  The story highlighted soccer teams where kids didn’t even have to show up to the game.  As long as their name was on the roster, they got a trophy.

And then they moved to Academic rewards.  They showed the average grade point for Ivy League schools over a certain period of time.  The commentator interviewed an admission counselor who said, “Today’s students believe they deserve a B grade for just showing up to class.”  Maybe you can say all the Ivy league school kids are just getting smarter, but on the graph they showed was a line that went from C level work to high B level work over the last decade.

So, I wonder if we’re subverting the reward sensors early on in a child’s life for the sake of self esteem, and we’re damaging the parts where struggle, failure, and achievement strengthen the place where student can learn how to be motivated.

Again, I see both sides of this argument.  1.  We don’t want kids growing up to feel like failure.  But 2.  We want them to know the journey from desire to achievement.

It actually means something to win a game.
There’s a sense of satisfaction when you’ve put in the work to be the best of something.
When you work to perform, there should be reward.  But in a world full of winners and losers, don’t we have to learn how to fail too?

The Hang over Culture

Maybe this is all just a scenario I’m dealing with, and I’m too close to the students and families I’m accustomed to working with;  but there’s something about a culture where we highlight movies like the Hang Over, where we celebrate experience over actually getting out to accomplish our dreams.  There’s almost a cost – benefit analysis of everything a student decides to be a part of today.  Commitment is something for another far away time.  We wait until the last possible minute to commit to something, just in case there’s something better that might come along that would make a better story.   (and we all do this to some degree)

I wonder if these men who are struggling to enter into the process of achieving their dreams are fearful if they commit to something, they’ll be missing out on something better?  The reward for living a life loosely, seems to allow us to pick and choose in the moment without considering a path it may take to get us to a place we want to go.   What if achieving something great starts with a commitment to put one foot in front of the other?  It’s the small incremental steps that allow for a long journey to come to completion.  And if we’re always sitting and waiting on something better to come alone, we never move from where we are.  

Great Faith in this new Generation

Sometimes, with all the critiques of a new generation, there can be a sentiment that the future looks bleak.  In no way am I saying the future looks bleak.  The generation coming behind me is more impressive than much of what my own generation will ever dream to accomplish.  I’m excited to be a part of the process, helping to encourage students to be all theywere created to be.  

But until they become those people, we (those of us in mentor roles) need to start thinking about the processes we are using to help them get there.  

9 Comments

  1. Great post– thanks Andy. I don’t often comment on your blog, but I do check in from time to time. Thanks for the good work you’re doing.

    As a college professor, I can attest to the increasing sense of entitlement in certain undergraduates when it comes to grades. I did my PhD at Brown, where I regularly encountered students who cried over a B because they thought they deserved an A.

    Another thing I noticed, particularly amongst high achieving students, is that college was the first time they encountered something that they were not naturally good at. And this caused a great deal of panic, too, which resulted in students giving up too early on things that, with some effort and struggle, they could have really enjoyed and developed some mastery of. Some things are hard and don’t come naturally to us, but that doesn’t make them unworthy of persistence. There’s something about the presumption that talent is either there or isn’t, that hinders students from really trying stuff that doesn’t come naturally to them at first.

    Just some thoughts! Again, thanks for the good work you’re doing.

    Jennie

    Ps. I was a camper at K-Colorado back in the day 🙂

    1. So interesting. Thanks Jennie. I think you’re spot on, and sounds like you get an up close personal look at the problem. So what do we do to help? How does a professor want those of us preparing students for University to address the issue? Any ideas?

  2. Those of us in education have gradually, but definately noticed a decrease in the abillity of students to cope or to do self-talk. Not only are trophies responsible, but every activilty for kids, including socialization, is adult-directed from pre-school on. This is when we are going to color, this is when we are going to play, etc. Four-year olds play T-ball or soccer- all adult orchestrated. Games at recess, (if they have recess) are heavily structured– creativity, Initiative, self-direction, problem-solving, conflict resolution, etc, are either missing or adult-directed. For the sake of safety and the convenience of over-committed parents, we completely orchestrate their lives and then expect them to fly when we throw them out of the nest. Their wings hardly even have feathers.

    1. Very interesting Gail. I guess I never thought of that. Adult directed activities. What would you suggest that we implement to help students find their own way? What age do you think that it’s most important? I can see the issues with trying to allow students to guide their own activities, but in the academy it’s difficult to have a classroom run by “the students” if you know what I mean. What’s the solution?

      1. Thanks for the reply, Andy!

        I think one thing that can’t be emphasized enough (at all stages of development) is that one’s worth is not what one does or how one performs at a skill or activity. One of the reasons, I think, why college students are so devastated when they don’t get an A is because their worth until then has been bound up with their academic performance. ‘I’m smart, and that’s what I ground my value in.’ Insofar as a student has been good at school, this mentality holds him/her together. But at some point, it falls apart– whether it is in school or something else– and this performance-based valuation becomes an enemy. At worst, you get self hatred, and at best, you have a person who is incredibly risk-averse.

        So I think it’s important to help students distinguish between who they are and what they do (identity as distinct from action). These things are obviously connected, but they are conceptually distinct, and it’s helpful to remind them (and ourselves!) of that. Just because you fail at something (or get a B!) doesn’t mean you are a failure (or as we’d say at KAA, a camper might do a stupid thing, but that doesn’t make him or her a stupid person). It just means that the work wasn’t up to par this time, and that you can do better next time. Relatedly, encouraging students to ask for help is always good– it isn’t a weakness, but rather, it’s how we improve and grow.

        Both of these things, I think, encourage the development of students and human beings who are willing to try, fail, and ultimately, grow.

  3. On re-reading a couple of your questions, yes, we do put too much pressure on kids too young, but ironically, I think excessive criticism is to blame as much as the phoney rewards. We are sooo competitive, and your best is never really good enough. Let me explain.
    They are growing up in a paradoxical world where we have an accute shortage of heros, but we tear down anyone who is a leader. Teachers and police are heavily criticized, especially when parents don’t like an assignment or a grade. Politics is vile. If athletes make the olympics, but don’t win the gold, they are losers. Our living rooms are filled with adults watching games – yelling and criticizing players who make millions of dollars to play a game, but what happens when they make a mistake? We might yell at the screen for missing a lay-up or fumbling the ball. Sports news might replay the clip over and over – blaming one person for losing a big game. Kids are smart — is my effort ever going to be good enough if I am not Koby, Brady, Steve Jobs or Zuckerberg? am I really just another loser? Why should I try? Issues are compounded when perseverance for its own sake has not been rewarded.

  4. I am a pediatrician and have been caring for kids for 40 years. We treat them they way we treat cattle in a feed lot, pen them up with their peers, overfeed them, take away their freedom of movement and are then surprised when they are obese and addicted to video games. The comments above are very apt, adults schedule kids’ whole days and all their activities. What happened to just riding your bike as far as you could go or exploring the woods behind your house or playing marbles on the playground? Learning for yourself and with friends of different ages?
    Sports is about winning, the heroes in the media are the “baddest”, not the kindest, and if children don’t get to be with adults when adults are doing adult work, and learn as they go, they have NO idea what work is like, and what is worth doing.
    Lastly, sometimes in order to find what you want to do, you have to DO it. Set your feet on a path and stick to it. As you learn more you develop more commitment to the path and earn unexpected rewards along the way. Maybe we should be encouraging kids to follow their interests, not their dreams. Dreams are by definition evanescent and full of fantastical material. Maybe we need to be teaching them how to enjoy reality, not fantasy.

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