The world we grew up in and the one that we are making for today’s kids are very different, and it’s not just technology and housing prices that are changing, it’s the values that parents, well, value.
Today’s parents, themselves born into the success-obsessed 1980s, or pushed to be the best as neon-clad '90s kids, worked hard to win first place medals and succeed in AP classes because adults told us we needed to have a competitive edge if we wanted to succeed in the “real world,” but now that the millennials are all grown up, we’re finding that working so hard as kids doesn’t always pay dividends in adulthood.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, summed up the modern backlash against competitive childhoods, noting that today’s economic circumstances prove that childhoods spent chasing that perfect GPA really aren’t paying off financially.
Harris (who himself says he’s never worked as hard as he did in high school) notes that between 2000 and 2016, educational attainment rates increased but wage growth for most people has been stagnant or slow at best.
“This cohort of young Americans hasn’t only put in the classroom work — to say nothing of extracurricular activities and internships. This cohort of young Americans has also taken on incomprehensible amounts of debt in order to do it,” he writes.
Indeed, post-secondary institutions are recognizing that skills like conflict resolution, mediation and listening are as important as academic achievement when it comes to actually getting work after college.
We would rather see our children be the best version of themselves rather than the best on the field or in the classroom, but how do we teach kids to value cooperation more than competition?
We start by doing the same thing our parents did: Have the kids practice (but in a different way).
Build empathy muscles
Previous generations of parents encouraged kids to practice sports or piano in the hopes of building up the skills that would make them a winner, but according to experts, practice is as important for building cooperative soft skills as it is for becoming a competitor.
Empathic acts build empathy, so if you want your kid to collaborate and cooperate with people in a kind manner it’s important to give them chances to do that, and increase the level of challenge over time. Maybe your child is helping a sibling or friend with their homework today, but can volunteer as a tutor as they build those empathy skills.
Set high (ethical) expectations
According to the folks at Harvard Graduate School of Education, having high expectations of our kids doesn’t have to mean we’re expecting them to bring home first place trophies, but it can mean we’re holding them to ethical standards that cultivate empathy and compassion.
They recommend parents prioritize caring as much as academic and skills and athletic performance, and communicate that to a child’s teachers or coaches.
Kids should know that all the adults in their life expect them to be caring members of their community and are on the same page, even in competitive settings, like sports teams.
Cheer them on
When parents are trying to cultivate caring and kindness, a little praise can go a long way. A generation ago, coming home with an A or scoring a goal may have been a kid’s only path to parental praise, but experts say expanding our recognition circle to include things like welcoming a new student at school, or volunteering to take out the trash teaches kids that mom and dad notice when they help and collaborate, not just when they compete.
We don’t have to do away with sports or throw grades completely out the window to raise compassionate kids, but millennials have learned (some would say the hard way) that being at the top of the class now isn’t a guarantee that a kid will be earning top dollar in adulthood.
“Everyone tells students that the harder they work to develop their job skills — their ‘human capital’ — the better off they will be,” Harris writes. “It’s not true. In fact, the result is the opposite: more and better educated workers, earning less.”
If this generation has learned anything, it’s that some things (like kindness and compassion) are even more valuable than money and can set kids up for a different kind of success.