I get frustrated at claims that “kids these days” are the worst and horrible and lazy and useless. After yet another article to that effect, I got mad and decided to do the research and give kids these days a bit of a break. So, here it is, complete with a huge amount of links to articles and studies.
Summarizing the typical points: Back in my day, people had to work for what they got! Kids today are spoiled, entitled, and narcissistic, because their parents are too permissive and set no limits. Parents are also hovering and kids don’t ever have to work for anything and never experience failure. Now they get too many rewards for doing nothing and feel deserving for no reason. They should have to EARN everything, and they’ll only earn it if we make them work for it through incentives. Otherwise we’re just encouraging them to be lazy.
You can hear these same arguments on Fox News, on CNN, from the left, from the right, from every single news source out there. These same arguments have literally been appearing since the dawn of written history (Plato quoted Socrates in 400 BCE complaining about how worthless the kids were in his day). Now with mass media, people hear it a lot more frequently. Every generation has said that this next generation is the worst generation ever. The Atlantic published an article about this. Sure, the author concedes, kids have always been pleasure seekers, but longtime teachers report that what we’re currently witnessing “is different from anything we have ever seen in the young before.” Parents teach “nothing wholeheartedly” and things come so easily to children nowadays that they fail to develop any self-discipline. Forget about traditional values: Today, it’s just a “culte du moi.” This was written in 1911.
What’s actually happening is we are getting older. Even at 21. And when you’re 31, you’re going to look back on you at 21 and realize that you were incredibly self-centered and immature compared to being 31. That’s being human. It’s called maturation. As people get older, they forget what it’s like to be a kid and compare everyone’s actions around them to what they, personally, would do in a situation, rather than what they, at the age of that person who did a thing, would have done in a situation. Yes, kids are more self-absorbed and narcissistic than adults, but kids these days are no more self-absorbed and narcissistic than kids have ever been at any point we have studied in the past. A study published in the Journal of Psychological Science found no evidence that high school or college-aged kids are any more narcissistic or entitled today than they were in the 1970s (source).
Another study published by the American Psychological Association discussed how people’s emotional make-up changed as they grew older. Conscientiousness and emotional stability increases with age. When you see kids being rude and emotional, it’s because they’re kids. They do that. You did it at that age, too, and so did we all, but it didn’t seem unreasonable at the time because that’s where our developmental level was. Adults are better at being thoughtful and at controlling their emotions, and we unfairly expect kids to be able to handle themselves like mini adults when their brains are not capable of it yet (source).
Ok, so that’s evidence that kids today are not much different than kids a few decades ago, and I’m pretty comfortable extending that back to centuries. Kids are kids and have been for a very long time.
Now let’s look at parenting. There are exactly no studies showing any difference in parenting today than there was in the past. We have zero evidence that parents have changed their parenting styles, but now parents are obviously worse because they don’t pay enough attention to their kids and set no limits while at the same time hovering and never letting kids do anything themselves (however that works). Most studies about parenting in general show that being involved in your child’s life, offering them support, providing warmth, and unconditional love are the things that create the most healthy children.
Punishment, conditional love (you have to EARN it by pleasing me by working hard/winning the game/getting good grades/etc. You don’t deserve anything just for being alive), and other methods of parenting through psychological control leads to profound problems such as increased aggression, anxiety, and shyness (Source 1 and Source 2). Compare that to supportive parenting, which helps with resilience, social functioning, achievement, and physical/mental health (Source). In short, supporting kids without conditions is far better across the board than making them only feel good about themselves if they meet certain pre-determined conditions. This is true for in studies looking long-term outcomes for developing into healthy adults.
There was one study done by researcher at Keene State of the effects of helicopter parenting on college students that “did not discover any sense of entitlement or tendency to take advantage of people among students who were closely monitored by their parents; to the contrary, such students tended to be somewhat anxious — and also had positive qualities, such as ‘the capacity to love, feel supported and seek out social connections.’” It’s not available online, else I’d link it, too. There are helicopter parents who are controlling and lead to negative outcomes (more dependent, less open, more neurotic, but that comes from having controlling parents in the first place which messes people up), but when it’s support and frequent communication with parents to get advice and feel loved and be connected, it can be extremely beneficial. That kind of solid attachment to family is incredibly healthy (source).
There is a study published in Pediatrics that found one parental act that has a strong potential to create children who, two years after this act, are more aggressive, less likely to share, less social, meaner, and more disobedient. It’s not being too permissive or too hovering. It’s spanking. Striking your child has negative impacts that last for years (source).
Now, that brings us to the heart of the matter of working hard, incentives, being lazy, and motivation. Here are the common (incorrect) beliefs about motivation: if you want people to do things in real life, you must reward them. People will only do stuff to get stuff. People who are not successful must be conspicuously unrewarded or punished, because otherwise they are incentivized to fail.
Let’s start with the idea that people need to be rewarded in order to do anything. It’s bullshit. I’m not getting any reward out of writing this. I’m doing it because I love the topic, and I want more people to be aware of it and maybe think about their preconceived notions and stop blaming kids for being kids. I don’t win awards for literally any of my hobbies. I read and knit and fence and watch silly Christmas movies on Netflix and hang out with my cats because I enjoy it. For many things, the act of doing it is its own reward. This is called intrinsic motivation, and it is a powerful force and has led to a lot of amazing things.
The opposite of this is “doing a thing to get a thing”, which is extrinsic motivation, and it is also a powerful force, but in the bad way. Rewards actively get in the way of excellence. Here’s a TED talk on the subject. It’s been shown over and over for more than 40 years that rewards either do nothing or actively harm. Quoting from the video, “This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored” (5:05). Punishments are even worse. This website lays out all the problems with punishment. The negatives far, far outweigh any gains.
Lastly, how about the fact that kids need to fail because they need to learn how to fail and become more resilient and build up grit? They’re going to suffer later, so we should also make them suffer now so they can get used to it. Also bullshit. The best way to help people become resilient is to give them a foundation of successes and confidence to build on. That way, when they fail, they can recover and see it as a temporary setback instead of a pattern or a given. According to one study, “Characteristics of such [programs with high resilience for their students] included features like shared decision-making and planning, community participation, a supportive physical and social environment, good school-community relations, clearly articulated health policies and access to appropriate health services.” Notice that “letting the kids fail a lot until they got used to it” was not one of the techniques with a high level of success.
Basically, all the conventional wisdom around how “kids these days” are is complete hogwash and nonsense. There is a large body of evidence showing this and more evidence coming every day. The best way to help kids, as well as all other humans, is not to make them suffer until they’re used to it, but to offer them support, compassion, warmth, and encouragement. As with pretty much every issue involving people, empathy, kindness, and understanding are the way to positive and enduring solutions.