SALT LAKE CITY — Much entertainment aimed at kids and teens promotes a "you can do anything!" attitude, while ignoring hard work and good luck, according to experts.
The so-called "me" generation gets a lot of positive reinforcement, from parents telling them they're special to teachers inflating grades. Our culture, and media, focuses heavily on the self — and each person creating a life that is right for only them.
Jean Twenge set out to explore the phenomenon in her book "Generation Me." A professor of psychology, she noticed that the 20-somethings in her undergraduate classes were inundated with the concept of self-esteem. However, when they began discussing it, her students were actually referring to narcissism. Their feeling was that they deserved the best — each and every one of them — just because they existed.
Many of last summer's movies for children were shining beacons of the "you can do anything!" ideal. For example, "Turbo," where a snail raced in the Indy 500, operated under the belief that the snail was above the mundane tasks his fellow snails undertook every day. He knew he was special.
Why so self-centered?
"I think one of the main reasons why this cult of self-esteem has caught on is because there's a really fundamental belief in American culture that feeling self-confident helps you succeed," Twenge said. "I think that's why it's really spread so widely. The problem is, that basic belief isn't true. Self-control is much more linked to success than self-esteem."
"Focusing on outcome also sets kids up for disappointment. Are children's efforts worthless if they train in ice skating for years but don't win Olympic gold?" —Eileen Kennedy-Moore
However, success has become the main focus for teens in recent years. A study done by JWT revealed that the American Dream, which traditionally centered around faith and family, is now more focused on fame and fortune.
"Respondents perceive that today Americans are more likely to dream about making money and spending it," the study said.
Participants were asked in 2012 to respond based on what they perceive the American people's major focuses and goals are. Fourteen percent of those surveyed thought "entitlement" represented the American people in the past, while 39 percent thought it accurately described Americans today.
The study showed that the American Dream is to achieve fame, make a lot of money, buy nice things and succeed professionally. When asked if hard work leads to success, only 13 percent of people thought that Americans today identified with the concept.
Self-esteem won't solve all
Psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore specializes in child development. She said self-esteem must be earned, through effort and good performance, in an area that matters to the person.
"It makes intuitive sense that making kids feel good about themselves ought to give them the confidence they need to do well in life, but research tells us this idea is just plain wrong," Kennedy-Moore said. "Having higher self-esteem doesn't cause kids to do better in school, and it also doesn’t prevent them from smoking, using alcohol or drugs or engaging in early sex."
So why the confidence in the concept in self-esteem from her students? Twenge said there are so many mixed messages in the media, they're teaching kids questionable values. She specifically cited "Glee" as a perfect example of a show centered around feeling good about yourself, fame and big dreams.
Twenge said she becomes frustrated with inspiration-based movies because they're so out of the realm of reality.
"I also amend that phrase 'you can be anything you want to be,’ ” Twenge said. "You can be anything you want to be as long as you have the talent, you work really hard and you get some luck along the way. It's not as pithy but it's a lot more accurate."
Kennedy-Moore said there are so many factors that contribute to success as an adult — including opportunity, training, education, relationships and just plain luck.
"Focusing on outcome also sets kids up for disappointment," Kennedy-Moore said. "Are children's efforts worthless if they train in ice skating for years but don't win Olympic gold? What makes more sense is to focus on learning and growth. Help kids figure out what they're interested in and what the next step is to learn more or become better in that area."