Mastery versus Mollycoddling

This article in the July 18, 2011 New York Times posits the idea that today’s “safety first” playgrounds harm children more in the long run than any injuries they could suffer if the playgrounds were less safe. As someone who wrote a paper in college defending cartoons and by extension, their violence, as important to a child’s development, it shouldn’t surprise you that I agree with the conclusion by Norwegian psychologists Dr. Ellen Sandseter and Dr. Leif Kennair.

I’ve noticed a dramatic change when in comes to kids and sports since my early school days in the 1970s. The playgrounds of my youth were full of metal slides that baked in the afternoon sun, monkey bars that were either placed over concrete or if there was sand, you had to watch out for the hypodermic needles lurking just below the surface. Today’s playgrounds are all rounded edges and plastic. Sure, the kids don’t get a boo boo, but what is this protectionism setting them up for?

 Ask this same question about the trend in youth sports to give every kid a trophy just for participating. I’m sorry, but the main purpose of engaging in sports is not to falsely build self-esteem. It’s to provide an opportunity for mastery. Yes, you want kids to have fun and feel good about themselves, but does that mean that disappointment or defeat should be banned from their experience? If a child never learns how to handle defeat and disappointment, how is little Johnny or Jane supposed to deal with criticism from a boss?

A clue may be found in this piece from the Wall Street Journal in 2008. When little Johnny and Jane enter the workforce, they often feel entitled and expect praise from the get-go. These “Millennials”, who were generally born between 1980 and 2001, were pampered and indulged by their Baby Boomer parents from birth. If this isn’t karmic irony, I don’t know what is. To this early Generation X’er (born in 1965), the Baby Boomers can come across as spoiled, ungrateful brats who took all the goodies their Greatest Generation parents gave them and threw it in their faces. To now complain about working with the Millennials they spawned is disingenuous, albeit amusing.

Granted, not every Millennial is an entitled slacker, not every Baby Boomer is a spoiled whiner, and not every Gen X’er is as insightful (or humble!) as yours truly. But, the overall point about whether we are cultivating a culture of healthy empowered individuals or one of coddled, over-protected wimps is worthy of discussion.