Posted in Rants on May 11th, 2010 by Ed

I am totally unqualified to pass judgment on specific acts of parenting. If I ever have kids, I'll probably be feeding them margaritas to get them to stop crying or something equally abhorrent that I would currently criticize with great indignation. So I try not to wag my finger at parents, excepting the most flagrant abuses of the "I tattooed my 2nd grader" variety. That said, I am not hesitant to criticize parenting fads, the kinds of things that saturate the non-fiction bestseller list and are more likely than not to come out of the mouths of a Dr. Phil or a Joy Behar.

When social commentators paint the current generation of college students – do they still call them "millennials"? – they focus on the Special Snowflake phenomenon, that overpowering sense of entitlement that is the product of well intentioned but empty-headed emphasis on self-esteem building. Self-esteem is a good thing. So is having a grasp on one's own abilities and accomplishments that is at least partially grounded in reality. But this the generation of "everyone gets a medal" and "everyone's a winner." Gawker recently published an email from a would-be intern to a potential "employer" (to the extent that interning is employment) that sets the Special Snowflake problem in high relief. I am important, I am special, I am fantastic, I am desirable. That's what these kids have been told for 20 years before we graduate them into a grist mill of unemployment, unpaid internships, and $10/hr office work with no benefits.

Enough has been said about that, though. The parenting fad of the 90s that causes educators more grief than any other is the idea that children should always be given choices. Don't give them rules or orders (That's so 1950s!). Give them options and let them learn about making choices and dealing with consequences. So Billy didn't have a bedtime, Billy negotiated his bedtime. Susie's mom didn't turn off the TV, she said "You can either watch another 15 minutes of TV or (whatever), but not both." Let them choose, the talking heads of the day hypothesized, rather than making them feel like they are always being ordered around.

That's great except for the fact that nothing in the real world actually works this way. I notice this problem acutely in two situations.

First – and it's not surprising that I mention this immediately after the spring semester when final grades are handed out – today's college students believe that receiving a grade is a multistage process of which the grade they earned is merely a starting point for negotiations. In the short time (six years?) I've been doing this, this is the single most irritating part of the job. I tell them, I am not Monty Hall and this is not Let's Make a Deal. Unfortunately they were born in 1989 so that means nothing to them. Grade negotiation isn't new, I assume, but I have to think it's getting worse. In the past three days I have received numerous emails to the effect of, "I know I failed your class but I really need a C to graduate. What can I do?" You can't do anything, Shooter. If you need a C to graduate then I guess you're fucked.

Every student launches into the Negotiating Bedtime mode in these situations. They offer to do extra work (which will be as slipshod as their previous efforts, of course). They offer to re-take exams. They simply try to negotiate upward based on dubious logic of some sort – "This is why I deserve a higher grade" or similar nonsense. I have been offered large sums of money to change grades. I have been offered sexual favors for the same. I've been threatened (Not the scary kind – the sad, self-important kind on display in the Gawker link). Some of these kids, for as much as they suck at formal education, would be dynamite as used car salesmen.

Second, they want to negotiate their post-graduation lives when they have no leverage beyond their conviction that they are special. A student recently told me about getting into Elite Law School X but being unhappy with their offer in terms of financial aid. He described the scenario to me in a way that suggested he imagined himself like Lebron James on the free agent market – he'd state his demands and watch a bidding war for his services ensue. As gently as possible I explained that Elite U. doesn't give a rat's ass about him and if he doesn't take their offer they have 10,000 other applicants with nearly identical qualifications who will. Students also talk regularly about "job offers", as in, "I'll wait to see what kind of offers I get before I blah blah blah." They don't grasp how little they are worth in times like these. Most of them, talented or bright as they may be, will be unemployed or marginally employed for a few years at minimum. Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists can make demands. Social science majors can't. This does not occur to them.

We're quick to point out how counterproductive it has been to fill generations of kids with the idea that they are special, important, and entitled to success and happiness. We recognize that their self-image departs radically from the current reality. Maybe with time we will come to a similar recognition of how useless it has been to teach them to negotiate and to couch everything in the language of choices. This is every bit as impractical given the noticeable absence of choices and leverage to negotiate in the job markets of the new millennium.