Friday, January 4, 2013

Teenagers these days....

Complaining about how bad kids are these days has been a popular pastime for as long as we have records. That said, sometimes there are real changes in the way newer generations behave, and today I read on the BBC about a substantial rise in both self confidence and narcissism among young adults.  The article blames this increase on the idea that teaching self confidence is critical and tells us that we should teach children to value what they work for rather than simply telling them they are special.  I agree to an extent because it is certainly true that praising innate ability "You are so smart!" is counterproductive while praising effort "You worked really hard!" is useful.  They missed something really key though:  Contraception.

Back before the contraception was widely available kids just showed up.  It takes a lot more to convince yourself that you are some big deal when everybody knows that you appeared randomly, and perhaps even were not wanted.  There is a real comfort and potential hubris in knowing that you were created for a reason rather than just being the product of a cosmic lottery; just ask a Creationist.  Today most children are the product of a desire for children and the inability to conceive is a common issue rather than excessive conception.  All this also leads to smaller family sizes and the investiture of all of a parent's desire for immortality and vicarious living into just one or two children.

Family planning leads to lots of other societal changes too.  Our current obsession with children's safety and the prevalence of helicopter parenting has got to be largely rooted in having so few children per family.  When you have four kids helicopter parenting just isn't possible; you have to let them loose.  Not only that but you can afford to lose some kids here and there without running out.  With one kid you can arrange your entire life around them and convince them that they are the absolute centre of the universe.  We should not consider it surprising when we treat children as if they were priceless porcelain that they come to think of themselves as more important than everybody else.

Contraception is necessary so if we are worried about young people being narcissists then we must address the intermediate steps.  We can't do much about people realizing they were deliberately created but we can try to avoid excessive safety regulation and over organization of children's lives.  A lot more free play and a lot less misplaced parental paranoia would go a long way to reducing narcissism in young adults, to say nothing of making them more self reliant and healthy.

1 comment:

  1. Actually teaching children that they are special, rather than they matter because of what they do, is very bad for their self-confidence. In one study a bunch of 6-year-olds were given a simple intellgence-type test. Half the group was told after that they did well and they were smart. The other half was told they did well and they must have worked very hard.

    The children were then offered an opportunity to do another test and choose between one of similar difficulty or a harder one. It was not a huge sample, but none of the children who were told they were smart wanted to try the harder test, and all of the children who were told they worked hard did.

    And I can tell you from personal experience, spending your entire childhood being told that you "have potential" and that you are "smart" is pretty awful. I manage to simultaneously hold the ideas that I am a genius and that nothing I do will ever be worthwhile (of course both of these things are empirically true).