Beginning in the 1970s, the practice of singling out children for praise based on their achievements began to be coupled with awarding others likewise for lesser accomplishments. Rather than trophies being handed out to a select few, the push to give everyone a trophy began to emerge. These days children are often told they can perform certain skills when in reality, they cannot. “Telling Johnny he can read, doesn’t mean he can,” an elementary teacher once told me. But in the effort to avert low self-esteem, Johnny is told he can read. Here, the question needs to be raised, which is better for Johnny’s self-esteem: telling him he can read when he cannot, or his knowing he can read once he has learned how? In the effort to fulfill a child’s reality with meaningless rewards, we are perpetuating a society removed from where they are and the skills necessary to arrive at where they wish to be. In contrast, real success provides the motivation to excel in other endeavors. Self-esteem without substance is often expressed in arrogance and a deficit in moral decency.
In 1994 a new disability was coined by the American Psychiatric Association: Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Students diagnosed with this condition would no longer have to endure the consequences of acting on poor decisions. Paired with the failure to provide an adequate learning experience that recognizes excellence, subsequent developments in behavioral science called for a departure from traditional modes of punishment. Spanking is now equated with hitting and the paddle that traditionally hung in the principal’s office has been replaced by a disciplinary form that yields a significantly lower success rate for the average recipient. Of course, researchers have learned that one punishment doesn’t fit all, which is true. Some children respond better to the loss of privileges than the rod, but in practice, parents and school administrators have found it easier simply to ignore behavior problems, often blaming the teachers for being too strict. I was once criticized by a vice principal in front of a parent whose child was habitually late to class. Perhaps I was being “too rigid” in enforcing the district tardy policy, he said, in effect, suggesting that I ignore it. This response has filtered down to society in general. In generations far gone, when a young person behaved inappropriately in public, they were often reprimanded by the adults around them. No one would dare do so today. I recall a friend telling me that on a train ride to Himeji, an elderly woman whacked his shin when he brought up his right ankle and rested it on his left knee (pointing your foot at someone is considered disrespected in many Asian cultures). Unfortunately, she represents a dying breed in Japan, long extinct in the US. In California, that kind of behavior would have been grounds for assault charges.
In my first regular teaching assignment in the US, I was given a handbook to help guide new teachers into a successful school year by implementing some of the virtues of the Japanese education system. One of the first lessons I learned as an exchange teacher in Japan, however, is that much of their methodology is based on ours, especially when it comes to our groundbreaking work on classroom management, although, to be fair, practices vary significantly between schools. In some cases, teachers wouldn’t give a second thought before smacking a student who got out of line while at other schools, the opposite is true. I know of one case where a student kicked his teacher, a pleasant, middle-aged woman with a delicate frame, in the chest and sent her to the hospital. Another student hit a girl in the face so hard as to break her jaw. Neither of these students even missed a lunch hour. Perhaps they were simply ODD. The sad side to all of this is that by adopting American concepts of teaching and learning while supplementing these with loose behavioral expectations and greater attention to standardized testing, Japan is undermining their reputation as leaders in a variety of disciplines and industries. Worse yet for American schools trying to emulate the least effective elements of a system we authored.
At no other time in history has the inclination toward narcissism been so pervasive in American culture and indeed, throughout the developed world as a whole, due in large part to the export of western values via globalization. According to a 27-year study conducted by the University of Michigan, researchers found a 30% increase on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) in college students. Also cited is a 2003 study that demonstrated a 68% increase between the 1950s and 1980s in teens who agreed with the statement “I am an important person.” Indeed, narcissism is most associated with excessive self-importance. In questioning the origin of this problem, the authors point out a popular song sung commonly at pre-schools, ‘‘I am special/I am special/Look at me...’’ Of course, anyone who has observed modern parenting has seen this type of message reinforced again and again. Many parents trying to avert grocery store meltdown are more likely to give into kids who not only want to select the items going into the cart, but begin eating them before they arrive at the checkout. Simply saying “no” is a taboo with such parents who prefer a hands off, free-exploration approach. In the long term, however, they’re setting up expectations for future shopping experiences. As the scenario suggests, young people are largely only playing off the role they’ve been assigned and in the meantime are learning less about empathy and respect and more about manipulation.
Generations who came before have complained about the attitudes of young people for millennium. In the 16th century, adults began referring to young people as whippersnappers after the youths who could be found standing on corners and snapping passersby with strips of cloth. Although considered a term used by the elderly to describe the young, by no means is it new to the vernacular. It can be expected that those who are critical of the youth of today, were themselves the ire of the generation before them. But as the University of Michigan study suggests, the increase in narcissism has less to do with generation gaps more to do with modernity. In their study, participants were limited by age thus the same increase in self-importance may in fact be cross-generational, which would seem a reasonable conclusion.
In the last several years, the west has witnessed unimaginable disregard for others, especially within areas of investment and finance, which actually brought the developed world to the brink of economic collapse in 2008−a situation we are still reeling away from. Be it the schemes of Bernie Madoff or the investors at Countrywide and the American International Group, the insatiable thirst for more ended in the liquidation of savings and retirement accounts around the world. Even more unfathomable is the expressions of entitlement many of those responsible exhibited. Rather than face termination, AIG executives were awarded $165 million in bonuses after landing $170 billion in taxpayer bailouts. The recipients of these funds were not the young whippersnappers on the corner obviously, but Boomers and Xers who are rearing the next generation. The current debate about ending offshore tax shelters and other loopholes that would reset the tax rate of the wealthiest 1% of Americans to that of the middle wage earners illustrates this behavior even further. In hindsight, however, such outcomes are a logical product of an individualist culture.
There is some speculation that technology is the prime mover in the increased level of narcissistic tendencies. Compared to previous generations that had to decide on a greater collective level what to watch or listen to, today we can plug into our ipods and isolate ourselves to the internet where we are encouraged to “broadcast” ourselves and where we can have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook even believing our trips to the toilet are worthy of tweeting. As the Michigan study points out, however, tailored programs to suit the individual are not the stimuli for narcissism, rather narcissism has motivated the way we implement technology in our lives. How we utilize technology may have significant implications in our interactions and our ability to have empathy for others. One of the obvious indicators of the direction this is taking is the polarization that seems to have enveloped the developed world. The ease with which social isolation validates or own opinions is enhanced by filtering any views that expose our weaknesses. This is evidenced in the rapid deterioration of journalism in recent years. No longer do the networks provide slightly biased reports on political issues. Nowadays people tend toward the extreme right or the extreme left outlets for their news, with little room for moderate, let alone, objective reporting. Further complicating the situation is people’s trust that what they read on the internet is either newsworthy or accurate. On a macro scale, the implications this has for society is staggering. The west seems to be split into distinct camps with a “you’re either with us or against us” banner waving above each side. In the US, we go from voting all of the republicans out of office, to voting them back in per the next election cycle. The same is occurring in Europe between conservatives and liberals. Citizen involvement has been reduced to strict republicanism where people expect their representatives to change things while the voters pat themselves on the back every few years for filling in some boxes. No one seems to understand the meaning of sacrifice anymore. We want, but are we willing to give? Go to war? Yes. Pay for it? NO. War bonds? Ration what? Forget that; go shopping! What better way show our patriotism than to buy that new big screen or a Rolex? "It’s not how you feel, after all, it’s how you look," or so I was told by a salesperson at the Oaktree when I was a freshman in high school.
With increased motivation toward the importance of the self and a distancing from empathy, people are less likely to uphold the social order that has traditionally been the cornerstone of stability. While it would appear to some that empathy has actually risen among young people, most of these gains can be attributed to the increase service hours required for graduation and the push for cushioning college applications. Based on the shuttering rise in the NPI measure, the intention behind the increase in volunteerism seems less to do with empathy and more to do with the ME factor, i.e., “what’s in it for ME?” One of the most disturbing byproducts of situation is the lack of civil involvement which in generations past provided a sense of ownership and belonging. Young people are less motivated to contribute to the betterment of the community when they view the country as owning them something. Not only do civic duties loose go unfulfilled, basic courtesies are exchanged for convenience. Case-in-point: cell phones and driving. Everyone knows it’s unsafe, but nearly everyone engages in it. Even simple etiquette is completely ignored and often with the intent to ensure others recognize they’re having a conversation and therefore must be important. (As I am writing, a table of middle aged men impatiently wait as one of their cribbage buddies takes a call at the table, holding up the game.) One-sided convenience seems to be the latest trend, be in where people decide to park―often endangering others but saving a 45 second walk, or drivers having conversations in the street while drivers behind them wait; allowing children to run wild at the public library may allow parents to get what they need more quickly but it doesn’t do much for the patrons who are looking for a quiet place to read.
There are solutions, however. Obviously, the task is a complicated one but to begin, parents have to reintroduce the word “no” into the conversation with their children and begin being consistent in raising expectations. Schools can reinstate higher expectations for our students and recognize excellence when it’s achieved. Instill a work ethic that includes incentives to take ownership in and responsibility toward the community. Teach children that contributing doesn’t always come with money attached. Japanese students for example, are expected to clean their own classrooms, hallways and bathrooms, sometimes even paint the walls−a lesson we can emulate. Don’t conserve resources and recycle simply for the savings or because the city will leave your garbage on the curb if you don’t―do it because it’s the right thing to do. Call on Congress to ensure equity in the tax code, for so long as the wealthy skirt past paying their fair share, those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder will see no reason why their taxes should go up―Washington voters shot down a tax on soda and candy and a temporary income tax on high income earners last that would have went toward closing the budget gap and actually lowering property and even some business taxes; as a result, we’re cutting teacher salaries, health care, and laying of large numbers of state workers who actually perform necessary functions. To live life with purposeful intentions to do good is a central tenant in Islamic and other modes religious practice which grounds people to serving the community; through serving Allah, one serves humanity. Simple acts of kindness can make a significant impact on how we interact with one another and our environment. As the prophetic model teaches, postpone or even relinquish your rights to ensure the rights of others―not the other way around (imagine the world we’d live in if everyone cared more about their neighbor’s rights than their own). As adults, simply implementing the golden rule of “do unto others…” would go a long way. After all, the habits we form from observing our parents outweighs anything they could have said to us and the same will hold true for our children, less we wish to continue the process of dismantling what our forefathers, free and enslaved, struggled build, that is.