The Cupcake Generation
Imagine what will happen when today’s kids grow up and realize they really aren’t all that special
By Jayne Jacova Feld

In today’s world, it’s entirely possible for kids to reach adulthood without realizing they’re not amazing at everything they attempt to do.

Consider how, in recreational sports, players “earn” trophies for showing up. At classroom awards ceremonies, students are awarded certificates for being the most talented at something, or if not that, for trying really hard.

Somewhere along the way, parents decided that because everybody was just so special, everybody should get a proverbial cupcake.

Then there’s the trend toward “cooperative” recess and gym games. Gone from many schools are dodgeball-like elimination games. With competition out of the picture, everybody wins.

In the academic world, the cupcake is the A. While not so long ago, C+ was the average grade for college-level classes, A’s are the new normal. The first letter of the alphabet comprises 43 percent of all letter grades, according to published reports.

It’s as if we’re afraid that if our kids were to hear the truth – they’re not the best soccer player this side of the Delaware and their report on Jersey tomatoes will not become a “New York Times” bestseller – their egos will be too damaged for them to go on. But are all the trophies and accolades working? It’s a question that more and more parents ask as their kids come home pumped up with high grades, participation trophies and the idea that life will always be easy breezy.

For Medford mother Trisanne Vricella, her 12-year-old daughter’s steady stream of straight A’s this year is a cause of both celebration and concern.

“She gets straight A’s but she’s in seventh grade and has trouble telling time,” says Vricella, mother of three. “What does that say?”

The cupcake mentality is well-intentioned: in an increasingly complex, competitive and unfair world, it’s an attempt to boost self-esteem and to cushion our children from some of the harsher realities of modern living. While there are many situations in which “everybody wins” is a sensible policy, experts say cupcake overkill can backfire when we shield children from all forms of failure. As they see it, cupcakes feed into a larger trend in modern culture toward over-protectionism.

Moreover, it may seem counter-intuitive, but when children expect or anticipate rewards, it can compromise their performance. Rewards can even kill creativity because they discourage risk-taking, according to several American and Israeli studies. When children are hooked on getting a reward or extreme praise, they tend to avoid challenges and instead play it safe to avoid the possibility of failure.

Failure may sound, well, negative. But shielding children from disappointment can prevent them from building resilience and developing the skills necessary to cope with the complexities of life, says Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free-Range Kids,” which espouses giving children more unsupervised freedom.

“It’s a big lie that everything our kids do is fantastic,” says Skenazy, a nationally syndicated columnist who was relieved when her own son figured out he had no talent for bowling despite his eighth-place trophy in fifth-grade. “We’re treating children as if they were undeveloped, literally fragile and emotionally fragile beings who can’t realize they’re bad at some things.”

As she sees it, “everybody wins” is a by-product of the intensive parenting or helicopter movement. Driven by the marketplace of baby and kid products – from toddler knee pads to gym classes promoting movement “in a safe environment” – parents’ belief that kids will be okay if left to figure things out themselves is undermined. The message is that children cannot learn by observing, self-discovery or by making mistakes. They have to be managed – lest they fall behind.

“Along with this disbelief that things will kick in automatically, parents no longer believe children will bounce back from frustration and failure,” she says. “We’re so worried about their sense of self worth, self confidence and self esteem that we think we have to goose everything with an absurd prize.”

In the academic world, parents have become gradually more involved in their teens’ educational and social decision-making processes over the past 20 years; however, 9/11 was perhaps the biggest catalyst leading to “extreme protectionism,” says James Riordan, director of guidance for Cherry Hill schools. The widespread use of cell phones has also fed into this shift. While some of today’s demands from over-protective parents would not have been taken seriously just a few decades ago, educators have changed to accommodate the demands of this more intensive style of parenting.

Among the biggest shifts has been in the college application process – for both the better and worse, says Riordan. With the skyrocketing price of college, the sacrifices families make to pay the bill and the difficulties new graduates have finding jobs, parents are encouraged to play a greater role in the college search. However, it is not unusual nowadays for adults to all but take the decision away from their children. Some pay thousands of dollars for private SAT tutoring, and expert application and essay review, plus they often insist that guidance counselors process applications to as many as 30 colleges, he says.

“When a parent comes in and wants to go through all this, we do it – even if we know the parent has set the whole thing up, and even if thestudent says ‘I don’t know what colleges I’m applying to,’” Riordan adds.

One of the ways Cherry Hill high schools attempt to help teenagers build resilience is through leadership training, says Riordan. All freshmen go through a program to develop individualized academic and personal goals. The hope is that students will gain skills and confidence to make their own decisions.

“Will it stop over-parenting? Probably not,” he says. “We hope it will give students additional skills they can use and apply to life along the way.”

Riordan says another new trend is the increasingly common, almost knee-jerk reaction some students and their parents have to less-than-satisfactory results on exams and tests. In a not-so-distant past, a teenager would get a test or paper back in a class and have time to reflect upon the grade before reporting it (or not) to their parents.

In cases when a child felt the results deserved a second look, parents would often leave it up to the child to take it up with the teacher. Nowadays, many students immediately text results to mom or dad. Within minutes, parents call the school demanding explanations for a bad grade.

“We feel as parents we have the skills in order to make life better for our children,” says Riordan. “But by doing so much for them, we’re depriving our children of skills they should be developing by themselves.”

Still, not everyone equates “cupcakes” with over-protectionism, especially when used to motivate young children.

“I think folks make too big a deal about young kids receiving trophies,” says Dr. Stefan Dombrowski, director of the Rider University School Psychology Program and Cherry Hill father of two.  “It’s not going to make our kids soft, lazy, uncompetitive or unmotivated. Young kids like getting a trophy in the same way they like receiving a sticker or stamp at school for putting forth effort.”

By grade two, he notes, children generally know the top teams and players despite grown-ups’ attempts to put on an “everyone’s a winner” game face.

And for some, with lingering childhood memories of being on the wrong side of competitive situations, cupcakes have their place. Many years later, Marlton mother Marla Feldman Vecchio recalls the star incentive system her second-grade teacher used to dole out prizes. Month after month, the same three kids won the prize.

“What was the point of trying, we knew we weren’t going to get the prize,” says Feldman Vecchio, a former third-grade teacher in Cherry Hill and mother of three.

Still, she says, the kinder, gentler approach only works up to a point. Children need honest appraisals of their skills and the chance to experience their own failures or they will have trouble gaining independence.

“I tell my kids that life is going to be disappointing sometimes, and they have to accept that and just do their best,” she says. “You have to let them get hurt and feel disappointment.”

While even the most well-intentioned parent has trouble letting their children knowingly walk into failure, those who have let their kids feel some pain say the experience can be invaluable.

When Cherry Hill mom Sharmila Simms’ son Aidan, now 10, came home from school last year with a C on a science test, he was devastated. Normally a straight-A student, Aidan implored his mom to call the teacher and ask for a retake. It was obvious to Simms her son had not prepared for the exam. His answer had missed the point of the question and was not well thought out.

“Our kids are under the impression that if they show up and are breathing, they deserve an A,” she says. “It was hard for him but I refused to fix it for him, and it never happened again. It never will happen again. The lesson was learned.”

Realizing how hard it is for kids to lose, some educators are taking it upon themselves to teach the art of graceful losing. Due to her students’ frequent outbursts from unfavorable game outcomes, Diana Morris, a special education teacher in Cherry Hill, says she started modeling more acceptable reactions to losing a turn or a game, like saying “aww shucks.” Her students found the phrase so funny that it helped take the edge out of losing turns or even the whole game.

“The best was the last time we played an adjective game,” recalls Morris, who teaches first and second grade students at Horace Mann Elementary School. “I landed on ‘lose a turn’ five times in a row. I acted overly silly about it, saying (phrases like) ‘Oh my goodness! Not again! Better luck next time.’ They were laughing and then when they landed on it themselves, it only seemed silly to them.

“The thrill of playing the game,” she adds, “is beginning to take over the desire to win all the time.”

February 2013
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