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on Leading the Next Generation


How Adults are Stealing Ambition From Kids

I visited the home of a friend of mine just after he’d coached another season of little league baseball. His son, Jacob, plays first base on the team. He is ten years old. As we were talking, my friend suggested to his son that he take me up to his room to show me the trophy he’d just won. Upon walking into his room, I was stunned. The room was filled with trophies and ribbons. It reminded me of the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York…only bigger. (OK—I admit, I’m exaggerating a bit). But, awards were everywhere. When I asked Jacob how many championships he had won—he looked blankly at the wall and said, “None.”

I soon discovered, every one of his awards was simply for playing on a team.

I realize this experience may not sound new to you. We are raising a generation of kids who are used to receiving recognition for participating. It started back in the 1980s, when moms and dads were determined to boost their kids’ self-esteem and encourage participation over conquest. I understand that; I am one of those parents. But I believe this works when a child is five; not when they’re ten or eleven. It has backfired, and we’re now reaping the consequences of this decision. I know a kid who gave the trophy back to his dad after the ceremony. He said, “This doesn’t mean anything.” These kids are not stupid. But I wonder if we are.

Reflect for a moment on the long-term impact of this kind of world. When a child gets to swing at a ball until he hits it (there are no strike outs), when coaches decide not to keep score (there are no losers), and when everyone gets an equal award in the end (we are all equal), it can begin to de-motivate kids, especially boys. It takes the steam out of their engine. They begin to think: Why try? I’m going get the same reward whether I put out any effort or not. And it’s easier…put out no effort.

This is not just about sports either. Adults so wanted these kids to feel special, we began to take away the possibility of failing a class. Students always seem to find a way to negotiate a grade or do some extra credit work to make up for failing to do what they’d been asked to do. Many parents have removed the possibility of failing at home; kids still get money or perks even if they failed to share the responsibilities around the house. As a result, college staff and faculty are reporting the comments that incoming students are making to them:

  • Why didn’t I get an A? I showed up to class every day.
  • You’re guaranteeing me a job once I graduate, right?
  • OK…so I flunked the test. What do I need to do to get the grade I want?
  • How come my suite mate got a scholarship and I didn’t?
  • If my parents pay the tuition, I deserve the grades I want.
  • I think the government’s job is to make sure I get a job and a house.
  • You can’t criticize me. I tried.

By wanting our children and students to be happy, we may have created the most depressed population of kids in recent history. By leading them in this way, we have all but removed ambition in them. We have most certainly diminished it. Below is the reason why this philosophy has holes in it:

As their possibility of failure goes down, so does their value of success.

Think about it. If I grow up in a world where almost everything has been given to me, or made easy—I start feeling entitled to it. In fact, I stop trying hard, because I know, somehow, an adult will insure I get what I need or want.

One of the most valuable commodities we can cultivate in this emerging generation of kids is ambition. By this I don’t mean selfish ambition, or some self-absorbed preoccupation. (Narcissism may or may not motivate a kid to try.) I am speaking of the internal drive to achieve and to grow. The motivation to excel in an area. Further, it is a motivation that comes from serving or adding value to others.

I feel most valuable when I add value to other people.

Self-esteem is not something we can conjure up with a few affirming statements, or by giving them a ribbon just because they’re pretty or showed up on time. It comes from them knowing who they are intrinsically, and using their gifts to contribute to a cause greater than them. I firmly believe ambition is part of the equation. Ambition builds self-esteem and vice versa. When I feel good about myself I tend to try harder. And when I try harder, I tend to feel better about myself.

So What Do We Do?

Here are some ideas for cultivating ambition in kids:

1. Let them fail, but when they do, interpret the failure with them.

Don’t rescue them, but if they fall or fail, talk it over. Show them it’s not the end of the world and is not a reflection on their identity. It is a chance to try again.

2. Tell them stories about your failures.

My kids love to hear me talk about my past flops, failure and fumbles. As we laugh together, they think: Wow, if you did that and still made it…there’s hope for me.

3. Help them put their finger on something they really want to achieve.

Goals are important. They are targets to shoot for, and either hit or miss. Once you identify a goal, help them create a plan to reach it.

4. Establish rewards that only come as they work hard and make progress.

Separate the idea of merely “showing up” from putting out effort. Big difference. Set a reward that they can get only if they really excel.

5. Discuss your ambitions and how you felt when you accomplished them.

Once again, it’s the power of stories. Talk about an ambition you had years ago, and how you felt when you pursued it; how rewarding it was inside to earn it.

6. Communicate your love and belief in them, regardless of what happens.

Love should not be a reward for performing. Caring adults must demonstrate belief regardless of their accomplishments. This is a solid foundation for ambition.


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  2. Julie Anderson on April 9, 2019 at 12:55 pm

    This is why we have a generation that is embracing socialism. They don’t know how to compete.

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    Societies are not built on competition but on cooperation. Occasional competition is valid but builders who work their best efforts do not compete but cooperate. Musicians, sports teams, and parents should work together. Runners run against a clock not each other.

    The problem is lack of effort, values, and risk aversion. Socialism occurs when you favor the corporations which pay no taxes, the rich that “trickle down” their income and wealth, and the companies which raise drug prices. It is corporate socialism.

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How Adults are Stealing Ambition From Kids