A few weeks ago, I looked at the question of failure in American life, especially the central part it plays in education and child-rearing. It was noted in the article I discussed, which was published in one of the final issues of Child magazine, that by not allowing children to learn how to deal with failure, we're doing them a great disservice.
The topic must be much on the minds of editors and writers right about now, since permutations on the theme have been popping up all over the place. New York magazine looked at the issue from the other end — how children are being overpraised these days and wreaking havoc on the world.
Recently, The Wall Street Journal considered what's been happening when these overpraised tykes mature and enter the workforce. In the April 20 issue of "Weekend Journal," reporter Jeffrey Zaslow turned the spotlight on these "uber-stroked kids."
What happens to members of this "greatest generation" as they come face to face with constraints common to the adult world?
According to Zaslow, "Bosses, professors and mates are feeling the need to lavish praise on young adults, particularly twentysomethings, or else see them wither under the unfamiliar compliment deficit.
"Employers are dishing out kudos to workers for little more than showing up. Corporations including Lands' End and Bank of America are hiring consultants to teach managers how to compliment employees using e-mail, prize packages and public displays of appreciation. The 1,000-employee Scooter Store Inc., a power-wheelchair and scooter firm in New Braunfels, Texas, has a staff 'celebrations assistant' whose job it is to throw confetti — 25 pounds a week — at employees. She also passes out 100 to 500 celebratory helium balloons a week. The Container Store Inc. estimates that one of its 4,000 employees receives praise every 20 seconds, through such efforts as its 'Celebration Voice Mailboxes.' "
What in the world is going on here? The article made clear that building confidence is definitely a good thing. But it also noted that a number of researchers have suggested that inappropriate praise is turning a good number of adults into "praise junkies." The upshot, said Zaslow, is that lots of today's young people feel insecure if they're not consistently praised.
"Employers say that the praise culture can help them with job retention, and marriage counselors say couples often benefit by keeping praise a constant part of their interactions. But in the process, people's positive traits can be exaggerated until the words feel meaningless. 'There's a runaway inflation of everyday speech,' warns Linda Sapadin, a psychologist in Valley Stream, N.Y. These days, she says, it's an insult unless you describe a pretty girl as 'drop-dead gorgeous' or a smart person as 'a genius.' 'And no one wants to be told they live in a nice house,' says Dr. Sapadin. ' "Nice" was once sufficient. That was a good word. Now it's a put-down.' "