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.