For years, we’ve heard journalists, educators and employers tell us that our youngest generation in America could be called a “snowflake generation.” Why? Because so many of these kids have been raised in a delicate, soft environment, protected from life’s harsh realities and responsibilities. Some even wrote that we’ve coddled them, protecting them with “bubble wrap.”
Wikipedia reminds us, “The term ‘snowflake’ has been used to refer to children raised by their parents in ways that give them an inflated sense of their own uniqueness. This usage of ‘snowflake’ has been reported to originate from Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club, and its 1999 film adaptation.”
Initially, the term “snowflake generation” was mere slang, but was soon it was recognized as one of Collins Dictionary‘s 2016 words of the year. Collins defines the term as “the young adults of the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations.” Similarly, in 2016 the Financial Times included “snowflake” in their annual Year in a Word list, defining it as “A derogatory term for someone deemed too emotionally vulnerable to cope with views that challenge their own, particularly in universities and other forums once known for robust debate.”
How and Why Did These Snowflakes Appear?
These are the parents we’ve read about since 2002, hovering over their children, insuring they get all the benefits they deserve. More than thirty years ago, parenting styles began to shift. Moms and dads became preoccupied with the safety and self-esteem of their kids. As this parenting population grew, culture began to reflect their sentiments: “Baby on Board” signs in the back of the mini-van; diaper-changing tables in public restrooms and child safety rules increasing. I know parents who did their child’s homework and who joined their graduate at his first job interview.
Participation Ribbons and Trophies
Eventually, youth sports leagues felt it was important to celebrate participation more than winning. It was understandable. Most kids won’t win a championship and adults felt that should not prevent those average players from being rewarded in some way. A few years ago, I visited a friend’s home and saw his child’s room literally filled with trophies and ribbons he’d been given. He had never won any championships. This has fostered an expectation of rewards just for showing up.
Students’ grades have been on the rise for over forty years—not so much because they are smarter than children decades ago, but because grades have been inflated by schools. In the 1960s, the average grade given was a C. Why? Because C means average. Today, the average grade is an A. Many adults fear students cannot handle the harsh reality of a C. I spoke in one school district where faculty told me they were not allowed to use red ink when grading papers; it was too harsh. Some told me they were not permitted to use the word “no” because it was too negative.
Virtual Realities and Prescribed Activity
Instead of making teens work jobs, we got them involved with recitals, practices and games—all supervised and prescribed by adults. While piano, ballet and sports can begin to cultivate discipline, these activities are still virtual realities, only a facsimile of the real world. When a teen says they want to do something that actually matters, adults then places them in a supervised program that emulates the real world. It’s all controlled by adults, which fosters dependency and reduces ownership.
Technology and the Media
As this generation grew up over the last 20 years, portable devices and social media took over. Kids today are exposed to tens of thousands of images each day, often causing them to feel jealous over what friends are doing (having seen their Instagram posts). They believe everyone deserves the latest iPhone (or Android), the latest Abercrombie and Fitch jeans, the latest Xbox, the latest Nike shoes and a subscription to Netflix. Entitlement and materialism usually walk hand in hand.
Safe Places in College
As students enter college, they begin to clamor for safe places, free from opposition or harsh feedback. This came to light in a confrontation between Yale University students and faculty Head of College, Nicholas Christakis. The confrontation arose after Christakis’ wife, Erika, a university lecturer, suggested students should “relax a bit rather than labeling fancy dress Halloween costumes as culturally insensitive.” This sparked a “screaming, almost hysterical mob of students.” Even if their views are right, the answer isn’t always to remove opposition, but to know how to handle it.
Who’s to Blame?
In the end, far too often these “snowflakes” are products of our making. Not seeing what was happening soon enough, parents, teachers and other adults forgot that raising children is not just about protecting but preparing. We wouldn’t let them fail. We removed the consequences of poor decisions. We praised the wrong qualities in them. We risked too little, we rescued too quickly and we raved too easily. As they came of age and should have been ready to enter adulthood—more educated and with greater advantages than past generations—a mammoth percentage moved home after graduation. According to Monster.com, in the five-year period between 2010 and 2014, somewhere between 60 and 80 percent returned home, following their college experience. A 2010 study revealed that a full one third of all American males between the ages of 22-34 still lived at home with their parents. While the challenge involves all genders, our males have been the greatest victims of this tragedy. They often remained boys when it was time to become men. For instance, while males and females both move home after college, the women often return home with a plan. The guys usually return home with no plan at all. Their “Call of Duty” is a video game—not a reality of life. Mom is far too ready to cook, clean and cater to them.
Building Snowmen from the Snowflakes
1. Grit and Gravity
Zero gravity environments cause muscles to atrophy. We learned this from NASA over fifty years ago. Astronauts in space had to perform exercises to prevent them from becoming weak in a space capsule that had no push or pull from gravity.
Metaphorically speaking, this principle is applicable on earth as well. When adults remove the “gravity” (the push or pull that stretches people) our young will be unable to do tasks that past generations of young adults were able to do. Strength comes with stretching. Grit grows with gravity. As their leaders, we must introduce (or allow) gravity to take effect, knowing it’s a positive and essential element of their growth. Learning to pay bills, assuming responsibility for tasks, negotiating projects with both teachers and employers cannot be learned on a screen or with a lecture. It requires action. Growing up works like riding a bike. You must do it yourself. Sure, kids begin with a tricycle and then a bike with training wheels. But eventually, the training wheels must come off, or embarrassment will prevail. Like teaching a child to ride a bike, our leadership must offer a balance between support and letting go.
Today, our young will only cultivate grit when they are forced to be resourceful. Grit comes, psychologist Angela Duckworth says, when students must reach down and find a way to achieve something on their own. The more resources we give them, the less resourceful they tend to become. Further, research tells us we must encourage them to stick with a commitment for at least two years to see lasting results.
2. Control and Hope
In experiments with adolescent rats, psychologists discovered what they later called, “learned helplessness.” Studies verified that rats stop pulling a lever to get food when nothing happens. The same response occurs with humans when participants pursue a certain goal. When nothing happens for a period of time, they conclude the goal is out of their control—and they stop trying. Too often, our young give up due to “learned helplessness.” This happens, however, in both a surprising and sinister fashion. It’s all about control. Studies reveal that when the activities in their day are controlled by adults (and hence, not in their control), both their angst and hopelessness rise. The more we govern and prescribe the agenda, the less they feel hopeful and the more they feel helpless.
Further, learned helplessness promotes irresponsibility. Kids feel little responsibility to work because it’s “not up to them.” I believe most middle class students assume that if they make a mistake, some adult will swoop in and rescue them. While this may feel good, it hinders development. Feeling that outcomes are in their control gives them a greater sense of hope and ownership.
Established generations must slowly encourage and even insist on giving them control of the “agenda.” This is the only way to build ownership, engagement and responsibility. It requires trust and flexibility, since young people may not perform to our standards. We must decide what we want most: perfection or growth.
3. Belief and Reality
What message do you suppose it sends a student when the adults in his life continue to swoop in and save him whenever something goes wrong? While it may feel good at first, it communicates: “We don’t think you have it in you to solve this problem. You need an adult to help you.” Consequently, these young people don’t feel like adults themselves until somewhere between ages 26-29. They can remain on their parents’ insurance policy until age 26. In one survey, young adults reported they believe adult-life begins with “having their first child.” Today, this doesn’t happen until long after 18 years old. So while we give them the right to vote, they may have no concept of reality. Rights without responsibilities creates virtual adults and often, spoiled brats.
As I mentioned earlier, adults have filled our kids’ lives with artificial experiences. Young people may try to act like real adults, but we’ve not trusted them to take on something genuinely important—something that has high stakes. And they’ve gotten the message loud and clear: You are just a child. You don’t know any better. You need help. You’re not an adult.
When an adult is both supportive and demanding, it accomplishes something amazing. A young recipient begins to believe in themselves, because their parent or employer believed in them first. And that belief is displayed by offering real-life experiences to the young person, that communicates: “I believe in you and your ability to handle this opportunity.” It may be an overseas trip, or a job or even raising funds for a significant cause. But it’s all about great expectations. One experiment found that a specific type of feedback given to young teens increased the students’ efforts between 40 and 300 percent. What was the feedback? It was simply: “I am giving you these comments because I have high expectations of you, and I know you can reach them.” So, the next time you owe some feedback to a young person, ask yourself: Are the remarks I am about to make communicating belief in them?
In the end, we created the snowflakes. It’s now our job to build snowmen.
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