You’re not special

In a very funny New York Observer piece, Alexandra Wolfe argues that upper-middle-class American kids suffer from Too Much Positive Reinforcement. Mommy and Daddy lavish children with unearned praise, leaving young people out of touch with reality. You’re not special, after all.

After decades of upper-middle-class parenting designed to shield Junior from all possible failure, and from any honest judgement of his talents, it’s no wonder we need television shows like American Idol and its fellow showcase for TMPR victims, The Apprentice. These shows are delivering the spanking — sorry, the time-out — that our culture of bloated self-evaluation is subconsciously craving. Their success signals that we may be reaching the end of a long national delusion. There is simply not room enough at the top these days for everyone raised to believe they belong there — and, deep down, we all know it.

. . . We’ve become so inured to the idea that a person’s self-assessment need not be changed by a little thing like repeated and utter failure that no one was the least surprised when Joe Lieberman took so long to throw in the towel. Before New Hampshire, he said, “The people of New Hampshire put me in the ring, and that’s where we’re going to stay.” Jon Stewart on The Daily Show put it best: “When did our elections become the Special Olympics? You’re not all winners. Not everybody gets a hug. You guys got crushed.”

Wolfe focuses on wealthy Manhattanites — the parents who spend $5,000 to get their kid into a $26,000-a-year private school — but the problem of overly entitled children is much broader. Look at all the students who complain they have to pass a test of ninth grade reading and math skills to fulfill their college dreams.

Some day I’ll write a book titled Everything I Know About Parenting I Learned from Mick Jagger. You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.

Update: Students learn more from teachers who are tough graders than from easy graders, says an Education Next article on “The Gentleman’s A.”

About Joanne


  1. Independant George says:

    Well, please allow me to introduce myself – I’m a man of wealth and taste.

  2. Perhaps, George. But you’ve misspelled “independent.”

  3. “Individuality is the opium of the 20th-century masses. The cruelest fiction promoted by schools, advertising agencies, politicians, and the stewards of the status quo is that everyone has something to say; that your tastes are distinctive; that every person matters. Chances are, you don’t.”
    -Alex Beam, Boston Globe

  4. My 17-year old daughter commented that Simon on “American Idol” was probably doing a lot of people a favor by telling them they stunk, and needed to get another career.

    But was Michael Jordan’s high school coach doing him a favor when he told him he’d never be a basketball player?

  5. It is hard to imagine what these kids (the ones who have superheated positive reinforcement) will possibly be able to do for a living. They certainly can’t be scientists or engineers; they would never be able to deal with the frustration of equations and experiments that don’t work as expected. Salesmen? No way—dealing with rejection is almost the essence of the job.
    Small businessmen? Very unlikely.

    They will mostly have to seek out jobs in the lower levels of highly-structured bureaucracies, glaring out in resentment at a world that refuses to give them what they think they deserve.

  6. In the case of Michael Jordan, he took his rejection and used it as motivation to make himself better… In fact, it’s very possible that he worked harder because of that rejection… Would Jordan have become the player that we all know him to be if he never felt failure..?

  7. David Foster has a very good point. I teach chemistry at a large research university. Over the years I have taken in about 80 research students in my lab, both grad and undergrad. What strikes me is that the students that stick with research i.e. the most resilient types are from the middle/lower middle classes. These students are working their way through college. The all-expenses paid rich kid types can’t seem to deal with the frustrations of experiment trouble-shooting despite their classroom A’s.

  8. Frank…wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that something like 60% of the PhD candidates in the hard sciences (at American universities) are immigrants? (Number might have included children of immigrants…not sure..but an interesting datapoint nonetheless.)

    I wonder if the “superheated positive reinforcement” thing could be partly cured by adding more classes (in elementary school & high school) in which the reinforcement comes from the experience rather than from a person. I mean things like lab sciences and shop classes. It’s harder to bullshit a piece of equipment than a teacher.

  9. jeff wright says:

    Old saying, IMO, most appropriate for today’s self-esteem-laden populace (BTW, it’s not limited to youth, either):

    “It’s mind over matter. I don’t mind and you don’t matter.”

    Everyone needs to hear this at least once. Try it some time. It’s worth it just for the looks of disbelief.

  10. Eric Jablow says:

    I just wish that people woul dfinally understand what positive and negative reinforcement really are. Positive reinforcement does not mean always in the positive direction. It means in the direction one is going.

    Positive reinforcement: y″ = y.

    Negative reinforcement: y″ = -y.

    The first always leads to disaster. The second leads to stability. Compare the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to the Brooklyn Bridge.

  11. Eric is right. Giving rewards for any behavior isn’t positive reinforcement, its a waste of resources, and a cruel way to raise a kid.
    And I am not surprised at all by the notion that kids learn more from tough graders. I did.

  12. David, I am only counting American-born students of all races. Speaking from my own personal experience, I am American of Asian descent, I find that 2nd generation Asians avoid the sciences. Maybe med school, but business, and law is where they seem to head off to, instead of the sciences. BTW in my own lab I have had only two immigrant Asian grad students in over 11 years.

    This is unscientific but my impression of where most of the engineers & scientists come from in this country is from small-town and rural middle class America. The better-off urban/suburban kids seem to head off to law and business. Again I only offer this as evidence based on my wife’s family (white) and my own. It could be that rural life experiences account for that, I grew up in a small town and loved to tinker with car batteries and small engines. It could also be the effect of self-esteem and doting soccer parents in suburban America in the partially described in the NY observer article.

  13. Independent George says:

    Perhaps, George. But you’ve misspelled “independent.”

    Ack, that’s the trouble with leading yore browse her remember you’re personnel info… I must have post Ted the same miss steak in a thousand blog commence bye know. Next thyme, aisle spell czech!

  14. Independent George,
    Why should you have to spell your name the way it has traditionally been spelled? You are special and there is no need for you to change just to conform to the pressure applied by an unjust patriarchic society. You are just a creative free thinker who refuses to be bound by convention.

  15. I was watching the British version of “Coupling” recently and had a eureka moment: the show’s American version didn’t work because the show’s humor is based on humiliation and manners. Many Americans lack both, because we’ve been raised wrongly. In school, we were taught to show appreciation for things we didn’t appreciate, display enthusiasm for a school sports team we didn’t really care about, and expect recognition for our efforts, no matter how many times we were going through the motions or otherwise put forth little effort.

    The fakery was overwhelming. No wonder we don’t vote, volunteer, or support local efforts: we were taught at a young age just how hollow the processes of community can be. If we are going to expect children to grow up to be harsh critics, there will be a lot of hurt feelings among those who work at or visit the schools. We’ll have to take it if we’re going to dish it.

    I’m ready for that world, but I’m not a teacher.

  16. As a corollary, I not only learn more from teachers that are tough, but I also RESPECT those teachers more. If the class can convince the professor to put off the test a week or give us a 30 point curve, any admiration I had for him or her flies right out the window. Instead, the classes where I work the hardest are the ones where the teacher *dislikes* me; I fight as hard as I can to win his or her good opinion.

  17. My son, now 12, has received a butt-load of trophies for just being on sports teams. I’ve long predicted that these trophies would lose their value once he realized they “honor” the fact that he’d merely shown up. Last night he confirmed this for me when he criticized trophies that one gets just for participating. I think this realization came because he was on a championship team last year, and, of course, got a trophy. That one actually signifies something. The rest of his trophies look about as nice, but don’t mean nearly as much to him. I’m glad to say he’s now firmly on the side that trophies should go to champions, not just to everyone.

    Also, dittos on the notion that you learn the most for tough teachers. I always got a queasy feeling in my gut whenever I had a softie of a teacher. I suspected either that he/she didn’t know the subject well enough to be demanding, or at least that I should be learning more in the class than I felt I was.

  18. Frank…you say “my impression of where most of the engineers & scientists come from in this country is from small-town and rural middle class America.”

    Tom Wolfe agrees with you. In his recent book of essays (which I think is called “Hooking Up,” he says that in his research on the space program he was impressed by how many engineers came from small towns, and referred to the space program as the “triumph of the squares.”

  19. Here’s an anecdotal episode demonstrating how schools teach students at a young age that all effort deserves equal praise.

    A local preschool had a lunchtime event to raise money. Each child was supposed to walk around the parking lot 10 times to receive pledged money. After each lap, the child was handed a coupon. Before it began, the principal made a speech explaining how important the goal was and thanking each child in advance for giving their best effort.

    As might be expected, some children made a special effort to walk fast, most walked at a normal pace, and some just slowly ambled and talked in groups. When it became apparant that most wouldn’t complete the 10 laps, the principal ordered teachers to give the slow students 2 coupons, and then 3, and finally as many as needed for those who only completed two or three laps.

    The performing children complained that it wasn’t fair, and even some of the slower ones tried to protest that they hadn’t earned the coupons. Yet, the process finally assured that every student received 10 coupons, and all were praised for doing their best.

    In a discussion with the principal, she told me that she believed in treating all students equally, and that it was important that all feel that they had achieved the goal. To single out anyone would give them “feelings of superiority” only make the others feel bad. I replied that even the kids could see unfairness and were learning that effort was unnecessary to achieve the goal. I then suggested that a lesson of reward for effort might be more appropriate.

    And thus I learned from a visibly upset administrator that without a formal degree in child education, I couldn’t possibly understand what was important to child development how fortunate that I was that such radical ideas weren’t tolerated in her school.

  20. Daniel Newby says:

    B. F. Skinner found that pigeons rewarded on a fixed schedule learned random “superstitious” behavior. Teachers ought to be sure what lesson is being learned before teaching it a thousand times.

    At least we have video games. They have clearly-defined success and failure conditions, and keep score without mercy.

  21. I love being a tough teacher, but I loathe dealing with those parents whose egos are so invested in their “genius” kids that they can’t see the spelling for the paragraph. It is easy to post on a blog about how wonderful tough teachers are – and as a toughie, I take that as a compliment – but it is another thing to field the phone calls and complaints. Thank the goddess (I’m a feminist, suck on it) that my administrators have a tough set of ovaries.

    That said, I LOVE it – all together now – LOVE it, when parents thank me for having high expectations.

  22. A couple of points:

    1) Why are y’all being so nice to Independent )or Independant) George? He is the, er, Devil, y’know.

    2) Joanne, my wife and I are heartless and cruel parents. We’ve been singing the chorus part from “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at our kids for years. And to rub salt in the wound, we use that sing-songy kind-of squeaky accent the kids use in that song. Stops the whining (most) every time.

  23. I remember one friend, a math grad student at Harvard, one day lost it with his calculus class “Whoever told you guys you were smart?!”

    I don’t think he taught freshmen after that.

    Still, university math courses can be rude awakenings for many students who were used to problems directly modeled on textbook examples.

    As for where the overly-egoed work, I know some of them end up in marketing. I was going to put an anecdote here, but let’s just say Dilbert covers the limitations of marketing people pretty closely.

  24. Around the Corsair Clan we are often forced to resort to “Whoever said that life is fair?” whenever one of our “special” kids decrying this or that after they messed up.

    Seems to work. Now they use it on each other.

  25. Steve LaBonne says:

    When my daughter was younger and used to accuse me of being “mean” for failing to indulge one of her whims, I would always reply proudly, “That’s right, I told you I’m the meanest Daddy in the world and don’t you forget it”. She’s also heard “Life’s not fair- deal with it” about 1,000,000 times. 😉

  26. I’m interested in the comments by people who appreciated tough teachers. My wife is a “tough” teacher at a university. While some students appreciate her commitment to actual learning, many others complain that she asks for too much. Simply paying the tuition and occasionally showing up for the class is worthy of an A in their eyes. It frustrates her, but she remains determined to actually teach, when it would be so much easier to just let the whiners slide by.

  27. Such indulgences will only create a weak class of people that can easily be taken advantage of. They will be choice sheep for conmen and others willing to play up to their inflated versions of themselves. I thank god for all the good, tough teachers that I had.

  28. D. Hanson, do your wife and I teach at the same place?

    One of the regular complaints I get in one of my (biology) classes is “there’s too much math!” or “there are too many assignments!”

    I also (back when I taught at a community college) had students regularly beg me to show movies in class. I explained that I’d consider it, if I ever came across one that fitted in with the syllabus. They told me “oh, well, you know, in our other classes the teachers just show movies whether or not they are related to the course work. We write summaries and get points.”

    I wasn’t asked back to teach there the next semester (something about my “expecting too much” from the students), but I wouldn’t have gone back if I had.

  29. I absolutely hated my parents when they wouldn’t give in to me when I was younger. Not that they didn’t spoil me a little (what parent doesn’t?) I look back to the kids that I envied when I was younger and thank God that my parents had enough foresight to be patient.

    Or maybe it was because they were poor, either way…

  30. Darn, you all are making me feel bad for not going back thanking all my tough teachers way back when I could remember their names and they were still above ground…

    I certainly didn’t like it at the time, but the harder they made me work, the more I learned. So here’s to that mean old 9th grade math teacher that found math problems I actually had to _work_ to solve for the first time in my life, three high school English teachers who kept me revising and polishing essays until I learned to write an understandable sentence, and the entire staff of Oklahoma State U’s school of Engineering, who piled on homework problems so tough that real engineering jobs … aren’t unbearably harder.

  31. Steve LaBonne says:

    D Hanson, that’s why I’m not in academia any more. At least at small colleges, with their worship (amd careless interpretation) of student evaluations, the lunatics have long since been put in charge of the asylum. Faculty who don’t yet have tenure get to choose between doing their jobs properly and _keeping_ their jobs- the influence of the kind of student you deplore makes it pretty hard to do both. At many colleges, even tenured faculty depend on student evaluations for at least part of their annual salary increases, so having gone along to get tenure, fewer and fewer of them try to change course later on.

  32. People keep confusing “You’re special” with “You’re unique”.

    Everyone is unique (yes, even identical twin, who occupy different physical locations and experience different things in their environments.)

    Not everyone is ‘special’; that is, the cream-of-the-crop. Everyone wants to feel special in some way, and the touchie-feelies play right into that basic desire.

    People will lie, steal, cheat, and even murder to preserve their self-images of themselves. The stronger and more reinforced the self-image, the more violent the reaction. Check out the extremists at both ends of the political spectrum and I’m sure you’ll easily find ready examples of this.

    This is what often happens when someone loses their job – they’ve invested most of their sense of self-worth into that job, and feel worthless and devastated when that image, real or not, is removed from them. And think about the guys (and it tends to be mostly men) who go off the deep end when their wife or girlfriend leaves them, and in turn they kill the whole family then themselves. Without this validation of their self-image, they are worthless in their own eyes, and murder and suicide are somehow desirable alternatives. I think that when you look deeper into these kinds of incidents, you’ll find that these violent reactions involve someone being deprived of their often-unrealistic sense of self.

    Let’s try to help our kids learn to deal with small failures and rejections in childhood, so they don’t become the lead story on the local nightly news…..

  33. Steve LaBonne – I teach a large research university and student evals are used to judge teaching here also. I use standardized exams from the American Chemical Society to counter any criticisms of my teaching due to low student evals. Almost needles to say that the scores on ACS exams and my student evals are inversely proportional.

    David Foster – Thanks for that Tom Wolfe essay heads up, I’ll look it up. It would be a very interesting sociological study to know where scientist and engineers come from, especially in light of the dropping interest in these fields by students of late.

    BTW the all, I noticed that the NYO article is no longer up at that link at Joanne’s website, it’s still available at a Yahoo cache:

  34. Daryl Cobranchi wrote: Why are y’all being so nice to Independent )or Independant) George? He is the, er, Devil, y’know.

    Precisely. We’re using all our well-learned politesse….

  35. meep: “As for where the overly-egoed work, I know some of them end up in marketing”…Let me just remove the dagger from my heart…there, that feels better…having run marketing organizations (and also having had marketing departments report to me as part of larger organizations), I guess it falls to me to defend the honor of the profession.

    I think it’s true that some people of the type we are discussing gravitate toward marketing–I think that’s largely because B-schools tend to present marketing as “strategic” and in a way that encourages people to think that they will find the most upper mobility there (as opposed to sales, which seems to usually be positioned as a pack of Willy-Loman-like drones). But these people with superheated self-esteem are as useless in a marketing organization as they are everywhere else, and the well-managed marketing organization (there do exist such things) will not provide a haven for them.

  36. SusieQ: my students moan and groan all year like I’m killing them, but I love those comments I get at the end of the year about how they “survived C.” They know they accomplished something. One of my students has to write an essay for a (don’t choke guys) minority scholarship, and she told the admission person “this is no sweat; I have C this year.” I LOVE it when my kids come back to me to work on college/scholarship essays. They may have called curses down on my head when they were in my class, but when it comes down to the important essays, they come to me. That’s the feel-good that keeps me at it.

  37. A peer and I, both section managers in an engineering group have observed the following: HR never sends us new grad candidates with less than a 3.0 (on a 4.0 max scale) gpa. Yet, we have found that those students with a lesser gpa who have experienced failure, had to work really hard and struggled on through it to eventually suceed are often our best engineers, even with considerably lower gpa than HR sends our way. Our conclusion – failure, struggle, working hard just to keep and eventually “overcome”/succeed up builds character and self-respect and a sense of accomplishment leading to real success in the real world.

  38. Rita, from one toughie to another, I salute you.

    And here’s my new motto: Whine now, reap later.

  39. I love your motto. I need to put that on my board!

  40. “Whine now, reap later”..sort of reminds me of the saying of the Russian general Suvarov:

    “Hard training, easy combat–easy training, hard combat”

  41. Wacky Hermit says:

    I make a point of treating all my students equally. If none of them make the C- cutoff, none of them pass. If 17 of them make the A cutoff, 17 of them get A’s. *That’s* equal treatment, even if it doesn’t result in identical outcomes. I get tons of complaints: “I’ve ALWAYS gotten A’s and B’s in math– how come you’re giving me a C [or D or F]?” I just point to the syllabus and say to them, “You know what you need to do to get an A or a B, and you’ve known since the first day of class.”

    I have to tell my favorite hard-teacher story too, since everyone else is. I had a professor for Real Analysis who drove us like slaves. We did twenty hours of difficult homework a week in his 3-credit undergraduate class. When evaluation time came around, I tried to be constructive in my criticism, but evidently everyone else ripped him a new one. But he kept on driving us hard, no matter how much we complained. At the end of the course I put a personals ad in the paper: “Anyone who believes there should be no prayer in school has never had F… for Analysis.” When I got into grad school, though, I finally understood what he was doing: he was preparing us for grad school, making sure we would arrive in grad school capable of the level and type of thought necessary to succeed there. Without his efforts, I would never have succeeded in grad school.

  42. Steve LaBonne says:

    And that, Wacky Hermit, is why student evaluations need to be treated with far more caution than is generally the case nowadays. Students can almost never accurately assess the real value of what they have learned in a course until afterward, often long afterward. (One comical thing about the research literature on student evaluations is that most of the papers explicitly give up right at the start on trying to measure any connnection between student _learning_ and the ratings they gave the teacher. But isn’t that what it’s supposed to be all about?)

  43. An article contrasting students in the US and Japan found that contrary to stereotype the Japanese students had a lower suicide rate. The article explained this by noting the many hurdles and assessments the Japanese students pass. They have to work hard and that gives them a sense of purpose or accomplishment. I’m sorry I don’t remember the reference for this. It was an educational journal like Daedalus , 5 years ago.

  44. Mad Scientist says:

    My mother had a routine.

    “News Flash: The world has a center!

    Update: You’re *NOT* it!”

    Seriously, I see this behavior all the time, younger people complaining that people are “unfair” because you demand performance from them. Older people tend to deal with it much better IF you are fair and treat them with respect.

  45. Patton: “An ounce of sweat saves a gallon of blood.”

    Funny how great minds think alike (in some situations; I have no doubt that Patton would have called Suvarov a Commie sonuvab*tch just the same).