The cocoon of delusion – are we praising away our children’s future?

September 7, 2014

In their 2010 book, “Academically Adrift”[1], Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa used the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure students understanding of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. They found that after the first two years of college many students demonstrated only limited learning and 45% showed no improvement at all. In a 2014 follow-up study, “Aspiring Adults Adrift”[2], Arum and Roksa reported that students scoring highly on the CLA were significantly more likely to be employed.

And despite evidence to the contrary, 75% of college seniors believed they had attained a high level of critical thinking skills and are optimistic about their future. Arum told Kevin Carey of the New York Times, “They learned from the experts that they can do well with little effort, so they’re optimistic.”[3]

Although deeply disturbing, none of these observations are fully unexpected. The trend in higher education has been one of decreasing emphasis on academics ostensibly driven by consumerism. I first wrote about this relationship in a 2010 posting that discussed rampant grade inflation at America’s universities.[4] There is little controversy that grade inflation is real. In a disclosure that was reminiscent of Lake Wobegone[5], where “all the children are above average”, Harvard Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris stated “The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”[6]

It is increasingly difficult to deny that we are screwing up our children by reinforcing and perpetuating the delusion that everyone lives in Lake Woebegone. For young adults, life is a sea of opportunity, but instead of teaching our children how to swim we are smothering them with an endless barrage of life preservers.

The problem is not limited to college. We begin at an early age telling our children they are exceptional at everything. Dr. Carol Dweck is a noted authority on the effect of praise on children and has reported that children praised for effort seek more challenging tasks than those children praised for intelligence. In a 1998 interview she summarized her findings saying, “Praising children’s intelligence, far from boosting their self-esteem, encourages them to embrace self-defeating behaviors such as worrying about failure and avoiding risks.”[7]

The praise effect note by Dweck is echoed in a 2014 paper by Jill C. Bradley-Geist and Julie B. Olson-Buchanan, “Helicopter parents: an examination of the correlates of over-parenting of college students”,[8] According to a statement by the publisher of the paper, “The study revealed that the clearest difference between those students with helicopter parents was their lack of belief in their own ability to complete tasks and reach goals.”[9]

The real question confronting us is why, in light of all the incontrovertible evidence, have we continued to disempower our youth and hobble their future as fully self-actuated adults? Why have we created an elaborate cocoon of delusion that insulates our youth from reality? It seems the answer may reside in the age-old conflict between decisions made by emotion versus decisions based on logic.

There is a natural tendency to want to protect our offspring. The trouble arises when that natural desire of a parent is not modulated by logic and hinders the transition from child to adolescent to adult. For the benefit of the next generation, parents must embrace the fact that Lake Woebegone is fictional and that teaching a child to swim is better than an infinite supply of life preservers.



[1] http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/A/bo10327226.html

[2] http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/A/bo19088566.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/03/upshot/the-economic-price-of-colleges-failures.html?abt=0002&abg=1

[4] https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2010/12/30/grade_inflation/

[5] Each week, Garrison Keillor shares with listeners the latest news and views from the little town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/about/podcast/

[6] http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/12/3/grade-inflation-mode-a/

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/14/science/praise-children-for-effort-not-intelligence-study-says.html

[8] http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/ET-10-2012-0096

[9] http://www.emeraldgrouppublishing.com/about/news/story.htm?id=5688



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