The Problem with the ‘Problems’ with the Millennials

By Margie Nichols, PH.D.

The Millennials (aka Generation Y) are the generation of people born between 1982 and 2002.  The oldest of them are in their late twenties, and for a while now there’s been a lot of bashing of these young folks as they have entered adulthood.  Dubbed “Generation Me,” they’ve been characterized as entitled whiners whose parents heaped on way too much praise for way too little, and who were ‘awarded’ far too many prizes for insufficient amounts of achievement.  As Judith Warner says in a piece in the Times called “The Why-Worry Generation” they’ve been assessed as psychological basket cases, narcissistic wimps.  Apparently, the latest piece of news about them is that they are “unreasonably” optimistic in the face of the recession, that they don’t second-guess themselves and they’re sure that bright days are ahead.

This is a problem?  It’s called resiliency.  I’m glad Warner has taken on those who sneer at this generation’s more laid-back values (they are turning down jobs that require them to work more than 40 hours a week, even this year).  She points out that the young adult Millennials may be annoying to those of us raised on  Woody Allen-style anxiety about the future and overachievement as a laudable goal.  We may think that their unquenchable faith in themselves looks a lot like a big fat ego.  But they aren’t really ‘maladjusted.’  They seem to deal with the stress of everyday living better than many of their elders.  Actually, we parents accomplished a lot of what we wanted:  they have faith in themselves and they see the world as a good place.

I take issue with those who tsk tsk about ‘overpraising’ children.  As a clinical psychologist, and as someone who has raised or had a hand in raising five children – if the result of praising children for everything they do is a somewhat inflated ego, that’s fine.  If you have to err in one direction or another (and all parents do) it’s better to err in the direction of praising the kid for breathing than to have more of your statements to your child be critical.   Years ago, Russell Barkeley, writing about AD/HD kids, said that praise should outnumber criticism (and “correcting” and nagging count as criticism) by a factor of four or five to one for the child to grow up with intact self esteem.  It’s not just true of AD/HD kids, it’s true of all kids.

As a clinician, I can tell you we rarely have to deal with adults whose major problem is too much self-confidence (I’m not referencing true narcissistic personality disorder here, that’s a different animal all together).  And it’s a lot harder to boost damaged self-confidence than deflate over-confidence.  Frankly, life has a way of taking care of the latter naturally.

So let’s hear it for trophies “just” for showing up to practices and games and developing the discipline of a sport, praise for mastering the smallest thing, or encouragement just for effort.  Why is being “best” so important anyway?  Most human beings are never going to be ‘best’ at anything besides being themselves.  “Good job!” doesn’t imply “you are the only one to ever do this wonderful thing” and there is no reason why children shouldn’t hear “Good job!” two dozen times a day.

Warner ends her piece: “Maybe having a bulked-up ego really does serve as a buffer to adversity.”

Duh.  Just like therapists have been saying all along, and just like any parent – or just any astute observer of human nature – knows instinctively.

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