The "no-need-to-panic" folks argue from a variety of angles: Haven't teenagers always been more self-absorbed than adults? Isn't that just the nature of being young and inexperienced? Is some of the "evidence" of self-absorption really a reflection of attitudes found among the most economically and racially privileged Millennials, rather than in a broader cross-section of society? Haven't older folks asserted the "inferiority" of the up-and-coming younger generation for as long as humans have walked on planet earth? Can our generation really claim to be "better" people on the basis that we didn't take "selfies" or use social media--considering the only reason we didn't is that those things hadn't been invented yet?
"Evidence" of Millennial self-absorption likewise draws on multiple factors, many of which relate to technology--social media, cell phones, reality TV. But some discussion focuses on other issues, such as "helicopter parenting" or changes in the way we conduct youth sports. One of the most prevalent mantras I notice whenever I read articles on this topic? "Nowadays, everyone gets a trophy," sigh the adults of my generation, wringing their hands and shaking their heads. And then someone adds, "Yeah, and just for showing up!"
Quelle desastre! Here endeth civilization as we know it! Thank God that, as a result of clever detective work on the part of us intrepid Boomers/Gen X-ers, we have finally located the source of all evil in our degenerate society: Some of the kids whose bedroom shelves contain an array of cheap plastic trophies are not actual winners! Some of those trophies don't point to any accomplishments! Those dorky little statues acknowledge nothing more than showing up!
Let's take another look at this, shall we?
My son, now a teenager, has a bunch of trophies in his room for playing soccer and basketball in elementary and middle school. And no, he wasn't what you'd call a "winner." Many of the teams he played on had winning seasons, but he wasn't one of the superstars. He had his moments: he once drained a bucket at the buzzer to lead his team to basketball victory, he scored a few soccer goals, and as goalie, he made a lot of saves (and broke a couple of wrists). But unlike a few of his teammates, he didn't stand out in either sport--though he wasn't "bottom of the pack" either.
What were those trophies for, then? What could he possibly have been rewarded for if he wasn't a standout superstar? I mean besides showing up (although "showing up" isn't necessarily the worst thing to commend someone for doing--sometimes that turns out to be the hardest part). If our son wasn't the one-and-only superstar, what did he learn that could possibly be worth acknowledging?
Well, for starters, there were these minor little character traits like sportsmanship, teamwork, cooperation, persistence, regular practice, commitment--all kinds of stupid little qualities that we certainly wouldn't want to foster in our children by "rewarding" them.
He learned to accept defeat graciously, high-fiving the opposing team after the game and congratulating them on the win. Because we all have to learn how to do that, and sometimes it's not easy, even now.
He also learned to accept winning graciously, high-fiving the opposing team and telling them, "Great game--you'll get it next time, dudes." Because, despite the antics of some of our high-paid professional athletes--"winners" who apparently "deserve" their accolades, even though some of them are also known for beating people up--kindness, especially when you're in a power-up position, might actually be more beneficial to society than a winning touchdown. (Blasphemy!)
He learned how to get back in the game after a disappointment like getting scored on--rather than wallowing in momentary disappointment. (His parents learned that too. On our team we had a joke: The worst position to play? Goalie. Second worst? Goalie's mother.)
He learned to encourage rather than demean teammates when they made mistakes. Because, apocalyptic discourse about the dangers of "niceness" aside," people actually do learn more effectively from encouragement than they do from being disheartened. (News flash.)
He learned that collaborative endeavors require commitment (i.e., showing up), and that he owes it to his teammates to be there for games and practice. He also learned that the only way to improve any skill is to practice regularly,
He learned to see things through to the end, even when things don't go as planned. In one memorable season, a Series of Unfortunate Events culminated in our son wearing casts on both arms, at the same time. Pulled by his doctor from playing for the rest of the season, he still ran on the field during practice, resembling the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He still came to games, cheering on his teammates in victory and encouraging them in defeat, joining in the communal celebrations afterward, and high-fiving the opposing teams with his casted arms.
Surely we shouldn't have rewarded any of that.
Oh, yeah, and he was getting physical exercise. And since his inclusive soccer and basketball leagues promoted encouragement over verbal abuse (and didn't allow the kind of bullying to which some of my own P.E. teachers turned a blind eye back in the day), perhaps when he hits adulthood he won't harbor the kind of antipathy toward physical activity that often plagues those of us who took heaps of verbal and even physical abuse on the field, back when it was believed that only "winners" deserve accolades. For all the hand-wringing about video games, childhood obesity and lack of physical activity, you'd think more people would support giving incentives for all kids, not just athletic superstars, to participate in sports. But I digress.
Guess what? My son--and the many teammates I met during the sports years--did not emerge from childhood inclusive sports leagues with delusions of athletic, or any other, grandeur. Amazingly, despite their supposedly video-game-addled brains, kids today can tell the difference between being acknowledged for qualities like teamwork, sportsmanship and persistence, and being acknowledged as a star athlete. They know the difference, and they are cool with it.
Most kids are not superstar athletes, and most of them don't aspire to be (even if their parents are clinging to hare-brained fantasies). The kids who do want that, and who might have it in them to be that, are usually tapped by scouts from the more competitive leagues. Those kinds of higher-performance opportunities are also out there, for the kids who want that--as they should be. We need both inclusive and competitive leagues, to meet the needs of many different kinds of children. And guess what? We've got them. If your kid wants, and can handle, a sports experience where trophies only go to the champs, he or she can still find that.
To the superstar athletes among us? Power to you! You can do something most of us can't, and I salute you. (But please do the rest of us a favor: If you do make it big, please try to role-model some of the other qualities that we're trying to instill in our own kids, not just "winning" at all costs. Because some costs are too high.)
As for the rest of us? Everyone needs physical activity, and everyone needs a place to belong. Everyone needs an opportunity to achieve and accomplish in some area--but let's face it, no one can excel in everything, and everyone also needs opportunities just to participate, whether we are super-achievers or not. Participation helps us to develop qualities beyond just "achieving"--qualities that are too often in short supply. When we participate in a team endeavor, when we grow and develop stronger character as a result, what's wrong with acknowledging it?
Nowadays my son is more interested in music than in sports. The trophies are still in his room, and for him, they are not inappropriate ego-boosters but nostalgic reminders of his childhood. Sometimes when we look at the trophies and team pictures, we get to talking: about time spent with friends, Friday nights on the basketball court and Saturday mornings on the soccer field, snack time afterwards with his buddies and their parents and bratty little siblings, horseplay after the game to expend pent-up energy, camaraderie on team picture day, and yeah, those occasional great days where he did something memorable, even if he won't go on to play in the World Cup.
Though I haven't noticed my own son doing this, I suppose I should allow for the possibility that somewhere out there, there are kids who wake up each morning and spend several minutes contemplating the array of trophies on their shelves while thinking, "Look! I'm all that!"--without realizing they are not. Perhaps these miniature egotists then strut off to school thinking they should rule the world, all because they got trophies that they mistakenly thought they deserved when really, the trophies were "just for showing up." Perhaps these kids emerge as entitled brats with the capacity to destroy society. (If so, imagine the magical superpowers they must have--still in their teens, lacking any kind of real-world power, and somehow they have managed to destroy our social order.)
Or today's many problems could, I suppose, actually be the fault of the people who have tons of power and tons of money, who are spending billions to hold governments captive to their interests and weasel their way out of environmental and workplace regulations, who are going through elaborate machinations to avoid contributing to the tax coffers and while slashing the safety net, generating a bunch of "jobs" that pay poorly and have no benefits and are pretty much guaranteed to keep the poor in poverty and ...
Nah, that couldn't be it. Let's blame teenagers. Especially the ones who've gotten a trophy "just for showing up."