The Namby Pamby Effect: Are Our Kids Growing Up Soft and Confused?

When Jacob was four years old, he earned his first, shiny trophy, courtesy of participation in a nearby t-ball league. As he grew older, trophies, plaques, and medals for participation started piling up in his closet.  One day, he even received a trophy for attending a friend’s birthday party.  In 3rd grade, Jacob earned his first trip to the principal’s office for bad behavior, and was given a lower level referral (formerly known as a demerit).  Moderate or higher level referrals didn’t exist.  By the time he reached middle school, he learned that as long as he kept his referrals under ten for the year, his parents would not be contacted by the school.  Meanwhile, despite putting little effort (at home or school) into his schoolwork, he slid by with mostly B’s and C’s courtesy of the well-documented trend of grade inflation. He and his classmates quickly learned that they could get into the online grading system and figure which assignments counted, and which were worth few or no points at all.  They quickly became experts on how to slide by.

But near the end of one semester in 7th grade, Jacob found himself with two F’s, one in Science and the other in Language Arts.  If Jacob was honest, he would have acknowledged that it was mostly due to gaming/texting in class and not completing the assignments.  He was also tardy 23 times to school that year, but because the first class of the day was a flex period (i.e., study hall), nothing happened because of this.  When his parents intervened and questioned about whether he would need to retake the courses, his teachers assured them that they believed Jacob knew the material.  They informed his parents that as long as he passed the End of Course Assessments (ECA’s), his F would be voided and he would “earn” a C in the class.  By the time he reached high school, he also found out that he could retake the same test as many times as he wanted (until the next test was given), and the highest grade attained would be the grade he was given.  His high achieving counterparts also discovered an accommodating system.  By getting citizenship and high marks, they could exempt out of three of their finals each semester.  Nineteen of them graduated as valedictorians with a perfect 4.0.  Once they reached college, they no longer had to attend most of their classes because the lectures were posted online, and many of the tests were completed outside the classroom.

As Jacob unknowingly found himself in a new educational landscape, little did he realize that the shifts were occurring at home and all around him. Although he grew up in a loving, warm household, never wanting for anything, his parents employed a permissive style influenced both by their harsh experiences in childhood and the insidious, unconscious forces of society, media, and advertising.  As a young boy, Jacob grew up earning an allowance, and got money when he did get A’s and B’s, but rarely did any chores around the house.  By the time he left home, he had only mowed the grass once.  Demands were minimal, and although Jacob participated in travel soccer leagues and had a private piano teacher, he grew up never knowing what it was like to feed and milk a cow in the early morning or pull weeds in the hot sun.  His parents or other hired people did almost all the work at home.

When Jacob graduated high school, he still did not have his license, and like many of his peers, seemed rather uninterested in doing so, often citing “that he was too busy” and would rather talk with his friends online or through texting.  He enrolled in a community college, eventually doing well enough to transfer into a 4-year university.  He graduated after five and a half years with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology, which required only 37 credit hours in his major to attain.  He was now 23.  He had little clue (and less motivation) about what to do next.  As noted in the May 2013 Series entitled “Cultivating Our Future: Are We Reaping What We Are Sowing”, he became part of a growing trend of young men who move back home, are underemployed, jump from job to job, and struggle to transition into the next stage of their lives.

The previous composite of real life examples provides one perspective on early lifespan issues and trends associated with the Namby Pamby Effect (often called Mamby Pamby).  As defined in the online slang dictionary, NPE (as we will call it from now on) is a term describing a state of being which is “without firm methods or policy; weak or indecisive.”  Known by other names (some more derogatory than others), NPE describes a climate in which a few underlying themes are endorsed (sometimes unconsciously).  One, individuals are repeatedly not held accountable for their actions, and are either provided with frequent options to “make up” for poor compliance or effort, or are simply allowed to “slide by” without consistent consequences.  Two, feedback regarding poor performance is either minimized or not given altogether while rewards (both of a material and social nature) for basic participation or simply satisfactory (or minimal) effort are repeatedly given.  Finally, NPE is premised on the idea that youth are too weak in character to be provided with direct and honest feedback, which might lead them to feel embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, upset, or depressed.  Therefore as noted, this type of feedback is largely avoided, minimized, or diluted in clarity.

Many today would suggest that NPE has become widespread. I am concerned that they are right.  If this is true, we must first ask the complex “why” question.  If I was to hypothesize, it seems that a few factors are at play.  Many parents will cite growing up with harsh, authoritarian parents of their own “from a different age.”  When it came time for them to parent, many of these same people will openly acknowledge that they wanted their kids to have more than they did, and feel more love than they felt.  And so the desire to be loved and admired began to overtake other aspects of their own parenting. In addition, it is difficult to deny that youth of today are taught two primary messages—messages that bombard them from many sources, particularly media.  First, it is that “image is of utmost importance.”  Second, “I don’t earn my privileges and toys, I deserve them.”  Over and over, many kids of today will tell you unabashedly that the games they play and the places they go are simply a right, not a treat.  When it comes to image, many institutions have acquiesced to similar trends, and it seems that schools, hospitals, governmental agencies, etc… have learned the lesson that the masses desire something that looks good above all, especially in this competitive market.  As a used car salesman once told me upon purchasing our dependable, but less than sleek looking van, “My customers want it to look good driving off the lot.  Dependability is no longer as important as it used to be.” Institutions have also learned that parents are not the only ones involved in adult matters, but the children now have great influence in key decisions.  Experience also tells them that it only takes one angry, litigious parent or patient to cause serious, serious problems.  In some ways, it is “better to negotiate or let things slide than pay the price of holding firm” to what we believe is right.

If NPE is really a growing trend, there are likely many reasons driving this train. But as always, the most important question involves what this means for generations growing up.  If we take the NPE message at face value, it seems clear that young people are absorbing some messages that contradict what will be required of them later in life.  They include:

  • There is always a way out of repeated poor performances or effort
  • Consistent hard work is not the most important thing; performance at specific time points is
  • Simple, daily acts (such as waking up and going to class on time) are not of great value
  • Repeated, constructive feedback and criticism is not a helpful tool; instead, it is deemed as a harsh, unfair method of instruction
  • It is more important to get a passing grade than learning the material
  • Hard work should be avoided at all costs; there is always an easier way
  • Uncomfortable, awkward situations should be dodged whenever possible, even if they carry the potential for personal growth or learning
  • Image is more important than reality

I would suggest that we are seeing many signs of these lessons all around us, in addition to the growing trend of underemployed, languishing young men. Somewhere along the way, I worry that the perception of authoritarian parents and teachers led us as a society to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.  What I mean by this is that in reasonably denouncing (or questioning) practices that may have seemed cruel, harsh, or clearly abusive, we may have inadvertently weakened or removed a most critical component.  That component is authority. As I have mentioned previously, authoritative adults love and accept their children as they are, but still repeatedly demand appropriate behaviors and expect that they will progress into adulthood as autonomous beings to the best of their ability.  To achieve this, clear, direct instruction and feedback must be repeatedly given from the moment a child understands “no.”  Mountains of research have found it just doesn’t work any other way.

If we are going to be serious about this, a few things must occur everywhere. One, we have to hold our youth (and any youth) accountable.  If they fail, then they should fail and appropriate steps should follow (including interventions if they are needed for a true weakness); if they misbehave, then appropriate consequences should ensue and all involved parties (parents, teachers, etc…) should work together to see these through.  There was a time and place when parents in a neighborhood (or school or social network) saw their role as one of accountability and monitoring, and if they saw any youth do wrong, it was expected that they would report this back to his or her parents and let the child know they had acted inappropriately.  We really need to support each other in returning to this code.

We as parents also need to say to our teachers at the beginning of the school year, “Please, please tell me if my child does something clearly wrong or struggles. Don’t worry about offending me.  I really need to know.”  And even if we disagree with a teacher’s methods, we should not broadcast this to our kids.  Adults should do their best to communicate and resolve issues respectively (and privately) in direct, mature ways before we ever bring our kids into the mix.  When this doesn’t happen, kids get confused about just who is in charge.

Second, it seems imperative that we do not allow kids to increasingly choose how their young lives will go when it comes to required entities, such as required schooling. Discussions are good, but the final decision should remain with parents.  Students should not be privy to what assignments matter.  They should assume that all assignments matter.  Opting out of finals not only removes one more possible method of learning, but it provides unnecessary rewards for doing what they should do, and avoidance of tasks that they will have to face later on.

Third, as someone who has touted the importance of effort-based rewards (see August 2014), I appreciate that kids should be rewarded for things other than being the best.  But do we really need a trophy for picking grass in right field and wandering the dugout?  It seems nice at first.  But quickly it just becomes expected, and then even discarded as that trophy starts to lose its luster unless a bigger one comes along.  Could we just leave the expense and troubles of trophies at home, and leave the joy to the playing of the sport itself?  There really was a simple truth to the days when elementary school leagues looked more like informal games played by kids on dusty playgrounds, where the prize was the one that occurred when the bat contacted the ball and the foot touched home.

Finally, we as parents really need to be honest with ourselves about all the forces that are counteracting the values we profess. We can keep acting as if various influences (whether of an advertising or media source or not) are not making our job more difficult.  Or, that they are not sending contrary messages to our kids, and posterizing  them as affluent adults deserving of having the best and deciding on whatever they want.  But to be honest, the evidence is overwhelming that we are all in somewhat of a denial, and are afraid to admit that much of what we are allowing, or even promoting, has been unconsciously driven by messages that we supposedly do not embrace.  If so, then it beckons us to consider what we should restrict, or remove altogether, in taking the risk that it’s worth standing by the principles we profess than slide into habits of which we do not agree.

I will end with the statement that a colleague recently made in bringing this discussion to me, in regard to our own kids. “Will the cumulative effect of all of this leave them lacking in life skills to make it in the real world? Or will the real world be so drastically changed by this culture shift that no one will notice?”  I share this uneasiness, too.  But if you think we are wrong, or too cynical, or this is way overblown, send me an email.  And don’t make it soft.  Just honest and direct.  I can handle it.  I promise.

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