Trophy Kids

Megan McArdle explains that writers, like many high performers, are actually TOO good at writing. Which makes them hate failing. But failing is good.

About six years ago, commentators started noticing a strange pattern of behavior among the young millennials who were pouring out of college. Eventually, the writer Ron Alsop would dub them the Trophy Kids. Despite the sound of it, this has nothing to do with “trophy wives.” Rather, it has to do with the way these kids were raised. This new generation was brought up to believe that there should be no winners and no losers, no scrubs or MVPs. Everyone, no matter how ineptly they perform, gets a trophy.

As these kids have moved into the workforce, managers complain that new graduates expect the workplace to replicate the cosy, well-structured environment of school. They demand concrete, well-described tasks and constant feedback, as if they were still trying to figure out what was going to be on the exam. “It’s very hard to give them negative feedback without crushing their egos,” one employer told Bruce Tulgan, the author of Not Everyone Gets a Trophy. “They walk in thinking they know more than they know.”


30 thoughts on “Trophy Kids

  1. I hate this “trophy kid” label, mostly because the trophies aren’t the issue. Who gives trophies to everyone? I haven’t seen it since the 2nd grade sports, and I don’t think it’s a big deal that we give trophies to everyone who shows up in the 2nd grade. And, the parents do it mostly for themselves, anyway, because they like make a rite of passage out of the participation and experience, which seems a big deal when they are six and step out on the field or score their first goal.

    I do think there’s an issue with current schemes of grading in which kids are graded against standards and not against each other. Grades used to contain a component of both — that you would know if you were meeting the standards, but you would also know how well you were doing compared to your peer group. When I discuss this with teachers, you often see teachers feeling a visceral antagonism to ranking the kids, and I understand their pain. It’s hard to rank students, because they are so multi-dimensional, and when you’re asked to rank them according to one thing (say, their math score), there’s a real danger that the child will measure their self worth by that score (that they are worse than other children, rather than just weaker, on math, on that particular set of tests and scores). So I really do understand.

    The problem is that soon, the kids encounter environments with scarce resources (say, access to a school, or a job, or a team) and they need to know how they will do in the competition for that resource. Many come with a complete lack of knowledge and willingness to assume only the bets about themselves.

    Mind you, the human behavior hasn’t changed at all — but, in the old days, people were more aware of how they were doing academically compared to others, I think. This caused some of them to give up in hopelessness (which I hope happens less now).

    1. bj said:

      “Many come with a complete lack of knowledge and willingness to assume only the bets about themselves.”

      I think this comes up a lot with writing and college students.

      Wendy, tell me if this matches your experience, but from what I hear, pretty much everybody thinks that they are a good writer, no matter how terrible they are.

      1. I think it’s more that they think they deserve an A for effort. “But I worked hard on this!” There’s a parenting truism where you’re supposed to praise a kid’s effort, but I’m kind of ambivalent about that. My husband says he relates to that advice, feeling that being told he was smart instead of being praised for his effort somehow diminished his motivation, but I’m kind of the opposite. Being told I was smart made me want to achieve more and also gave me happy feels, which were motivating.

        I’m struggling with similar issues with E. I would love for him to fail because he’s doing work that’s too hard for him, but basically he’s a gifted kid in the 6th grade, so what happens is that when he fails, it’s because he didn’t do the work on time, or he didn’t do *anything*. That’s the worst lesson to send. This is why I love my kids’ interest in music (both) and dance (S). The whole point is that they can’t play the music or dance the dance in the beginning, but then they keep working at it until they get better. We need more of that in education.

      2. I so agree Wendy!

        As my 8 year old and her friends/cohorts have grown, I’ve begun to notice a subtle difference between the kids who participate in any “delayed gratification” sport/activity and those who don’t. The former have a much clearer connection even at this age between “practice/work hard now” and “achieve something through learned skill later”.

        And on praising for effort – we praise the girl’s effort AND kindly call her out when she claims to have tried hard but clearly wasn’t.

        I think it goes back to early childhood when you can’t have any toddler music class without a snack time (even though the class is only 45 minutes long). There’s a loot bag for everything!

        Finally, even with no grades or inflated grades, the 8 year olds know who is smart, who is a talented artist, and who is a good athlete. I wonder if that dissonance between “we are all smart” and their understanding of who is and who isn’t is what ends up creating some of the later need for a head pat for just showing up.

      3. Doing the work and doing it on time counts. What disturbs me is the belief that there’s some core in everything and the rest of it doesn’t’t count.

        Sports does remain one of the few things where kids do learn the importance of outcomes, with everything counting.

  2. I did a college classroom exercise. It consisted of dividing the class into two teams that would compete against each other in a game of Jeopardy (for the subject area I teach). Each team kept track of the number of points earned. When I announced the winning team, a student piped up, “We’re all winners.” To which I replied, “No, you’re not. For one team to win, another must loose. It’s like being pregnant or not.” It felt harsh to be saying this to 18-22 year old students, but I also believe this thinking is delusional and does not foster competition.

    1. Depends on whether the game is zero sum,or not. Everyone can win (or lose) a non-zero sum game. Fortunately life is not a zero sum game, or at least we should work hard not to make it so.

      Don’t know whether a jeopardy game in a classroom is zero sum or not. If the goal was for everyone to learn/practice, everyone might be a winner, and, maybe, if the team with fewer points might have learned more, making them the winners in another way.

  3. In the workplace the problem isn’t so much the trophies but the lack of hoops. In school, especially in this era of testing, there are usually clear hoops – jump through them in the right order to succeed. In the workplace it’s generally less well defined. That can be a bit of a shock to someone used to being told what they need to do.

    1. Yes to this – and for the hoops that are there, you could handily leap through all of them and STILL not progress as you would like because of so many factors out of your control in the workplace.

  4. I’m not sure if I buy this trophy kid stuff. I live in a town with some very pampered kids. They get all the material things they want. But everybody works their ass off. They are constantly competing for travel sports teams and honors programs, and they get cut. All the time. Parents are super involved, but they aren’t on the field scoring goals or taking science tests for the kids. Honestly, the kids are doing much harder school work than we EVER did. They have no free time, because they are taking music lessons and taking essay writing classes.

    I actually think the kids need to chill out a bit.

    Maybe our town isn’t the norm.

    1. Yes, my experience, too. And, that the automatic trophies stop coming pretty quickly. As Michael write above, the presence of clear hoops for competition is something they get used to, along with the idea that they themselves get a reward for clearing that hoop. And, I think that the multiplicity of hoops in every endeavor can leave them floundering when the task and requirements are ill-defined, and the reward is non-specific, disperse, and long term (like the success of the company).

      I also have this suspicion that there are fewer kids comfortable with being “role” players (i.e. the kids who sit on the bench, take the smaller parts in musicals, follow rather than “lead”, . . . .), because those kids are less likely to stick with the activity.

      1. Yeah, I really think the colleges are doing a bad thing when they overemphasize leadership and penalize rank and file membership. You don’t want to create a situation where showing up and working diligently as a volunteer at a vanilla major charity earns you fewer college brownie points than starting a “Tasteful Hair, Makeup and Nails for Inner City Girls” charity.

      2. AmyP, how the colleges weight ECs is not known to outsiders, is it? Student body president is leadership, but I have no idea how starting an undocumented charity is weighted these days.

        It seems to me these sorts of things are subject to trends. The first adapters who do their own research, start their own companies and charities, do charity work abroad, etc. reap rewards. (Maybe.) Then it becomes a bubble, especially when consultants and businesses get in the act. At which point it becomes so widespread, it doesn’t differentiate between applicants for college admission.

        For example, searching for “high school international community service summer program” returns 708,000,000 pages on Google. The first page is all hits from different service providers.

      3. Yes, and the ones who did it for the first time were doing something different, showing initiative in a way that the consultant led (and, even if you’re not consultant led, once the bubble begins, it will be hard to disrupt that perception) aren’t.

        But, I think it’s a mistake to presume that colleges are too good at being able to tell all the differences. Having read the books (and sat on admissions committees myself, though not at the undergraduate level), my guess is that soft internal biases play a huge role — that the individuals on the committee have a series of internalized characteristics they appreciate. In the classic example, that could be the piccolo player over the oboeist, but also grit v passionate talent v some other personality trait.

      4. I keep seeing “started their own charity” mentioned in articles about Ivy League admissions, although I think that cranberry is correct that it is going to eventually start looking passe.

        I was talking to my sister about this (she has a 14-year-old) and we agreed that starting your own charity is very subject to gaming. Create a website, get a check from mom and voila–instant charity!

    2. Also, at the MS level in our neck of the woods, academic competition is less detectable than competition over other things — sports being the most obvious (but, that’s also our school, which doesn’t give grades, and has a reputation, like Harvard, for reporting that all the children are amazing — which, as at Harvard, might actually be the case).

    3. I think your town (and my town too) are not the norm – very UMC kinds of issues. I was talking to a neighbor about this yesterday – his middle schooler is already scoping out his AP class, and I had to tell him that they must chill. For many other people, this is more common:

      I teach at a university that does not draw heavily from an UMC base, and my work experience is a lot more like what Megan describes. My personal life is very UMC, so my personal experience a lot more like what you describe. It helps in giving me perspective when I deal with my kids.

      1. Cranberry said:

        “As far as I can tell, the kids who make it to good colleges from our local high school have less than a 1% fail rate.”

        But that remarkable success rate may be thanks to Mom and Dad continuing to hold their hand. A lot of them won’t need it, but to get to 99% percent success, I think you have to give some credit to Mom and Dad.

    4. I think my town is similar to your current town. I agree, I’m not seeing the supposed “trophy kid” thing in high school kids.

      There is a lot of competition. There is a lot of cutting from teams, activities, and classes.

      I see an inclination for children to specialize at an age which is too young, due to the relentless competition for activities. They decide they’re robotics kids, or drama kids, or community service kids. They choose an area of strength to develop. I would rather high school kids were encouraged to develop all their talents, rather than those which are rewarded in the school community.

      There are others who decide to opt out of the high school’s established activities. Some fall into really bad habits. Others rebel and find themselves.

      Graduates tend to do well in college.

      Overly involved parenting is a danger sign. That does exist, but it’s a tiny group. By no means can one declare an entire generation to be Trophy Kids. You know, these kids are competing with downsized adults for summer jobs. Their lives will be harder than the Baby Boomers’.

      1. ” I would rather high school kids were encouraged to develop all their talents, rather than those which are rewarded in the school community.”

        Me too, and it is one of my great regrets that i see this disappearing. Part of the reason does seem to be that kids aren’t willing to participate if they’re average (and, very few kids are going to be extraordinary at everything). You also mention that kids who are stars are the ones who reflect on the community and there are some kids who really are “pointy” (i.e. interested in only one thing). My daughter gets asked occasionally if she’s interested in early entrance to college, and we’ve always advised against it, because, in college (and at a big state college, particularly), you don’t get to be on the school newspaper or act in plays or play basketball unless you are stellar (and then you have to chose). It’s sad if that has to happen in high school now, too.

    5. I agree that millennials work harder than we ever did. But the helicopter parenting and the ever-increasing pressure for credentials and testing–which seems to have completely crowded out unstructured time–means that they’re used to having someone hovering all the time, telling them exactly what to do and how not to fail. This is not about Trophy Kids being lazy, which they aren’t. It’s about the credentialism driving kids and parents to act as if school is the whole world. I think the amount of work kids do these days, and the pressure to get into a good school, is a problem, not a solution. I get into this much more in the book, but only had so many words in the excerpt!

      1. Yes, I completely agree that kids don’t have enough unstructured time and have no life outside of school. Parents and teachers and coaches and tutors all help the kids to prevent spectacular failures.

        But kids still fail at things, despite all that effort. The standards for sports and academics are much higher than in the past. There’s an inflation of standards. They are producing college essays in high school.

        Maybe my kid’s generation is different from the millenials. He is very conscious that he’ll have to work hard to get into a college and that there aren’t many jobs around. He’s only 14.

        Really looking forward to reading the book!

      2. I think a small, dysfunctional group of young people receive a disproportionate share of attention. Students from affluent, involved families, who’ve had the benefit of a good education through high school, should not be falling apart on their first jobs or in college.

        However, it’s not an entire generation. It’s not even 3% of the graduates of MC/UMC suburban high schools.

        The kids who text their parents constantly for little things, who can’t handle being away from home or interpersonal disputes with roommates, professors or bosses, yes, they exist. They aren’t as prevalent as one might think from the pundits or the psychologists who sell books.

        As far as I can tell, the kids who make it to good colleges from our local high school have less than a 1% fail rate. They might have a 2% transfer rate, from one college to another. They’re under stress in high school, but they do very well out in the wider world, particularly in comparison to students who have coasted through high school.

      3. Laura said:

        “Maybe my kid’s generation is different from the millenials. He is very conscious that he’ll have to work hard to get into a college and that there aren’t many jobs around. He’s only 14.”

        My 11-year-old thinks that growing up may be kind of a bummer because of having to work and support herself. (I’ve been keeping up a series of comments to my big kids about how when they grow up, they will need to work and support themselves and living in mom and dad’s basement is not an option, as mom and dad don’t have a basement.)

        I’m actually much more sanguine about finding work, particularly for my two older kids (Baby T, being pre-verbal, is a mystery at the moment). Jobs which pay for $700k houses in the NE are of course rare, but jobs which will pay for $100k or $150k houses elsewhere in the country are fortunately quite common. I have no concerns about my older kids being able to support themselves (supporting a family of 4 or 5 or more is a somewhat trickier question, of course).

        I guess part of my confidence comes from the fact that there are several different family enterprises that are always in need of a young person with a nice personality and a good work ethic. There’s always work for a kid who needs it. Not high-paying work, but work.

    6. The overemphasizing the leadership skills reminds me of a corporate retreat I attended back in the day when I was working in southern Africa. They figured out our default team roles ahead of time and grouped us in various combinations. I was in a group of only leaders and it was funny to see how long it took us to finally fall back on our next best natural role. When we were all acting as leaders, nothing got done.

      You need more than just leaders.

  5. I’ve worked with a couple of 20-somethings like this over the past 5 years or so but I wouldn’t say they are commonplace, most young people are not trophy kids.

    I wonder how much the fall-off in MC and UMC kids having jobs as teenagers has to do with this. In my middle-class high school, most kids had a part-time job and that was considered a good thing. It meant independence and time away from your parents and your own income to spend on useless things. And, yeah, most jobs for teenagers are mindless drudgery but there is mindless drudgery in even well-paying status jobs so it’s best to get accustomed to it early and be able to make a direct connection between hard work and pay. Today’s teenagers are much less likely to have jobs and I think that does them a disservice. For the trophy kids that do exist, many don’t have their first real jobs until their in their 20’s and they are often blindsided by what it really means to work in an office 40 hours a week.

  6. “I wonder how much the fall-off in MC and UMC kids having jobs as teenagers has to do with this. ”

    I’ve always thought those teen jobs taught a lot, but part of what Sharon is saying seems to be that MC kids (or, is it actually disadvantaged kids) are showing the attitude of being rewarded for showing up. Those jobs seemed a good antidote — among other things, doing your job really mattered, and wasn’t just for your own enrichment (i.e. the person at the take out window wanted their burger, fast, with a friendly attitude). I think the reality (and not just the perception) that a lot of what we tell kids to do is for their personal/academic/etc. development (and not because they are producing something of value) plays a role in these dynamics, too.

    UMC child raising still has the kids playing games (rather than working), but they do win and lose. Is there something more happening at other SES’s (playing games, and everyone wins)? are those jobs gone? I’m a bit confused, actually, ’cause i did think that one of the educational benefits of non-UMC childraising was that kids *had* to contribute (working, taking care of sibs, taking care of themselves). In UMC childraising there’s a theater aspect to it all (i.e. must get a summer job to earn insurance money for the car, but, really, parents could easily pay for it, must raise money for that African charity, but if the bake sale doesn’t do well, parents will pitch in).

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