A Sanitized Childhood: Do Millennials Fear Failure?

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At C2 Education, we provide our SAT students with routine practice tests in order to gauge improvement and address weaknesses. One of these practice SATs includes an essay prompt which asks, “Is it necessary to make mistakes in order to learn?”

In reading responses to this question, you see a lot of students citing examples like Edison and his many failed light bulbs or variations of the truism “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But for every student who offers a hopeful view of a world in which mankind learns through trial and error, there are at least three more students who claim that mistakes are terrible and could never teach us anything.

This tendency to avoid mistakes like the plague is a symptom of a deeper problem among the Millennial generation: Millennials have been overprotected and are too often unprepared for the real world.

This past weekend, I witnessed a perfect example of this. I accompanied my young sister to her freshman orientation at a small local college. During the orientation, the students registered for their classes with the help of faculty mentors while the parents were held captive in a large auditorium. I quickly lost count of the number of parents who asked why they would not be allowed to choose their children’s classes for them. Several parents simply left the room, intent on finding their children regardless of the school administrators’ preferences. And those parents who remained behind spent the entire time anxiously texting their children. I had believed that my sister had sufficient confidence to create her own class schedule, but my phone soon began vibrating nonstop with text messages from my sister asking for advice, reassurance, and guidance in her course selections.

While the clear care and devotion that these parents hold for their children is most certainly admirable, I couldn’t help but contrast this experience with my own freshman orientation. I attended alone, as did most of the other students. I registered for classes alone, without giving it a second thought. I believe I might have called my parents a week or two later to share my class selections with them, but they certainly didn’t play an active role. And this wasn’t thirty years ago – it was a mere decade ago.

Following her orientation, my sister the Millennial immediately began second-guessing her choices, agonizing over the idea that she may have made a mistake. No matter how often I reminded her that she would still be able to change her schedule before classes start, she continued to obsess over the possibility that she might not have made the right choice the first time around.

Why are Millennials so terrified of being wrong? Why are they frozen by the idea of failure?

Sanitizing Gel

The Millennials grew up in an interesting era. Raised largely by Baby Boomers, these children were the first to grow up in child-proofed homes with every electrical outlet covered in plastic. They were the first to have their hands constantly sanitized with alcohol gel and the first to play on rubber-coated playgrounds. They were the first generation to be rewarded for participation and effort rather than actual success, and the first generation to be graded in green ink rather than red lest red ink send too harsh a negative message.

In sum, the Millennials enjoyed a sanitized childhood in which their parents, teachers, and coaches made every effort to smooth the harsh bumps of growing up. Parents of Millennials want their children to succeed – they provide them with every possible opportunity and push them to excel in school – but have Millennial parents inadvertently gone too far?

Professors at the Mercy of Students

College grade inflation is well documented and has been going on since the Vietnam War. But although grade inflation began decades before Millennials were even born, it got a lot worse in the late 1990s, just as the first Millennials hit college campuses. In fact, it was right around that time that the number of A’s given out exceeded the number of B’s.

As any college professor would likely tell you, Millennial students (and often their parents) demand high grades, even if they aren’t earned. One college professor writes, “The students were relentless. During the spring semester, they showed up at my office to insist I reread their papers and boost their grades. They asked to retake tests they hadn’t done well on. They bombarded me with e-mails questioning grades. More harassed me to change their final grade.”

And one has to wonder: Why do these kids think they are entitled to better grades? The answer, according to John Watson, who teaches journalism ethics and communications law at American University, is that many of these students believe that simply working hard – even if the product isn’t very good – entitles them to an A.

The Millennial generation has grown up in an era governed by valuing individual self-esteem. They joined soccer teams that gave trophies to every player, no matter how skilled, and played in baseball games where no one kept score and you got as many strikes as you wanted. And while these practices are all well and good for kindergarteners, the pervasive societal attitude of “all children are amazingly special” continued all the way up to high school graduation. And so it is no wonder that they believe that merely attending class deserves a top grade.

And it has to be a TOP GRADE – anything less is unacceptable because anything less is failure. As one college professor writes, “Just the other day I had a student in my office regaling me with a tale of horror: she got a B once! Maybe I lacked the corresponding horror because my own undergraduate transcript was just over half B’s and B pluses — of which I was at times quite proud, having earned them in challenging courses in which it was clear that while I was bright, I was not in the top third or fourth of the class. And this fact didn’t actually bother me, because not everyone can be the best at everything.” And that’s the key, the missing lesson that Millennials still have to learn: No one can be the best at everything.

I do not disparage this younger generation – I believe that the Millennial generation has amazing potential to affect great change in our society. But only if they can learn to embrace failure. If this generation cannot learn to take risks, to fall down and get right back up, and to face up to their inevitable mistakes, then innovation and progress are doomed.