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Erikka Askeland: Praise be for leaving childhood fears behind

'A researcher in the United States has discovered that university students are feeling pretty smug about themselves compared with their counterparts 40 years ago'. Picture: AP

'A researcher in the United States has discovered that university students are feeling pretty smug about themselves compared with their counterparts 40 years ago'. Picture: AP

  • by ERIKKA ASKELAND
 

KIDS these days. When I meet a young person – by which I mean someone under the age of 30 – often one thing that strikes me is their sense of confidence.

At the same age, I was working for minimum wage at a mall selling biscuits and wearing nothing but black.Some people of that age that I’ve met recently are running their own businesses and hobnobbing with Sir Richard Branson.

A researcher in the United States has discovered that university students are feeling pretty smug about themselves compared with their counterparts 40 years ago. According to an analysis of decades of student surveys, only 30 per cent of the students rated their self-confidence as above average in 1966. But in 2009, some 52 per cent did. A similar rise was found in their belief in their own writing abilities. And yet, if you look at their SAT scores – the standardised test used for university entrance – they are demonstrably worse at written expression than folk who were their parents’ age.

Keith Campbell, one of the authors of the study, says the increase in narcissism is down to the way the little darlings were raised. Schools and parents increasingly encourage children to think that they are special, he argues in an interview given to United Academics magazine. Even names matter, he says. Whereas in the 1960s most children were named Michael or Mary, now they are Apple, Jayden, or Moxie Crimefighter.

This overweening sense of self-esteem can be found across the social spectrum. While some striplings are becoming MPs within a few years of graduating from university, a friend of mine who tried to chastise some young thugs throwing firecrackers at a cat found her sense of adult authority diminished somewhat when they fearlessly started throwing the missiles at her.

Self-esteem, we are told, is a good thing. But can too much of it be bad for us? Carol Dweck, another US researcher, believes that too much praise lavished on children can turn them into little horrors.

In one example, two groups of youngsters were given an easy test. Half were told they passed because they were very smart while the others were told they did well because they made an effort. When they did a second, much harder test, the ones who thought they were smart struggled while the others who had been told they worked hard continued to do so. Then when the children were told to note down how they did on the tests for others to read, more “smart” kids actually lied and bigged up their scores compared to the others.

Yet, gurus keep telling us that positive thinking and feeling good about yourself is the key to success. They have a point here. It’s much easier to do better at your job, for example, when you aren’t huddled shivering with terror under your desk. And while fear, stress and competition are all known motivators, so is an occasional pat on the back from your boss or colleagues for a job well done.

In my more optimistic moments, I think all these bright, if arrogant, young things may be a sign of human progress. Over 100 years since the birth of psychotherapy, their prospects are increasingly undimmed by the vagaries of weird parenting that have been handed down from generation to generation. Where my grandmother left home at the age of 17 because of terror for her father’s irrational rages, her granddaughter’s two boys are cherished wee lads who are some of the nicest boys I have met. Where Betty was from a young age working from dawn to dusk on the farm while taking care of her siblings, April’s boys enjoy driving their quad bikes. Although they don’t mind helping out their mum when she asks.

Time, events and nature often end up having their way with hubris. Just ask any banker who stretched the limits of the financial system. Sure he may have got off lucky and walked away with millions, but invitations to swanky dinners and friendly neighbourhood gatherings are probably thin on the ground.

As for the kids these days, they may all have tablet computers and endless pots of ambition, but often their egos are more fragile. And they are still facing levels of unemployment not seen for decades. I’m glad I’m grown up now.

 

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