Over a century ago, Mark Twain summed up the teenage mindset when he quipped: “At 18 I thought my father was an idiot. By age 28, I was amazed at how much he had learned in just ten years.” One of the characteristics of being a teenager is believing that you know everything there is to know, and that adults know nothing of any real value.
While this may be a quality that is specific to the hormonal changes that our species undergoes during those turbulent years, I think there is something unique to our own culture that contributes to our teens’ overexuberant narcissism. Society has elevated self-esteem to such an extent that teens feel that they are smart and capable even when they have never demonstrated anything of the sort.
Take the results of one self-esteem survey done in the United States. They asked seniors writing a math exam if they thought they were good at math. Turns out an overwhelming majority did. Then they asked Korean seniors the same thing, and most rated their math performance far below average. Which group do you think scored higher on the math exam?
Is this high self-esteem going to help our teens in the long run? Think of what their future employers will be looking for: someone who will show up for work on time; who will work well in a team; who will do what they’re told quickly and efficiently; who will take the initiative to notice other things that need doing and get them done; and who will problem solve, instead of pestering an employer with constant questions.
Yet where do today’s teens learn these qualities? Too often schools seem to instill the opposite. A friend of mine was recently livid at her son’s teacher. She found her son working one night on an English project. “Wasn’t that due yesterday?” she asked. “Well, officially,” her son admitted. “But we all know that means sometime this week.” No one believed the teacher’s deadline. I wonder how that attitude would work on a jobsite?
This is closely related to the modern notion that all learning must be fun. Certainly making learning interesting and engaging is a worthwhile goal. But some things just aren’t interesting. Memorizing one’s times tables isn’t interesting, but it is necessary if you want to master math. Many schools are now reticent to force this particular skill, though, because it’s difficult and many kids don’t like it. In an environment where getting control of thirty unruly children necessitates entertaining them, hard things are often thrown out the window. Combine this with a high school system which wants to increase the graduation rate, and it’s easy to see why rules are often so lax. Education soon becomes simply pushing kids through the system, rather than holding up high standards. In the process, students are modeled the notion that life must be fun, that hard work is to be minimized, and that authority figures will always give second and third and fourth chances.
While this idea that learning must be fun may work to keep students in school, it does little to prepare them for real life. Most of us will not have jobs that are a never-ending party. We won’t have bosses hovering over the photocopier telling us what a great job we are doing. And the threats aren’t confined to the work world, either. Relationships aren’t always fun. Successful marriages are a lot of work. Teaching kids to eat their vegetables is a lot of work. If kids decide that life is only worthwhile if it’s fun, what reference point will they use to realize that hard work is worth the effort?
It’s too bad our culture has bought into this idea that entertainment is the pinnacle of success. At one point, falling into bed exhausted at the end of a productive day was the sign of a successful life, not something to be pitied. And hard work is far more rewarding than wasting a day in front of a screen. I think it’s time to get my kids to clean something.