Last week at a dinner party, one of the guests, a mother of two successful high school and college students, sighed. “I don’t know whether we did it right. Everyone raised their children so competitively around us: sports, lots of AP classes, internships, packed schedules every day. My children participated in all that, but I told them that life is about more than competition. Now that they’re older and have to compete for limited jobs and opportunities, I wonder if I gave them the wrong message—Maybe it is about getting to the top and all of the relationship building and character stuff that we encouraged is getting in the way.”
I felt empathy for the mother who “did everything right” and still has anxiety and regrets. She is caught in a dilemma many parents and educators face thanks to two conflicting trends taking hold in the U.S. On the one hand, there is a rapidly deteriorating political discourse bringing out an exceptionally divisive and downright toxic side of our country. On the other hand, many schools, universities, and companies are promoting 21st-century social-emotional skills (such as perseverance, positive social relationships, and empathy) and recognizing their value in the global community. These contradictory developments are understandably difficult to balance for adults as well as young people and lead to a great deal of confusion. This mother has a serious question: Did she put her children at a disadvantage by supporting their pro-social competencies, which may mitigate their drive to dominate and win? Don’t Olympians, she asked, have to be single-minded? Why should it be so different for the rest of us?
This problem is not new to American culture. Over time, we’ve become more and more preoccupied with the idea of individual success, unconcerned with the cost it takes to get there, and enchanted by unrestrained competition. Many companies have gotten into the habit of firing freely and with little sense of loyalty, and as a result, the young people who have managed to secure jobs approach them as transient experiences with little trust or loyalty on either side. Our society has many examples of accepting the negative aspects of competition: Until recently, for example, bullying was rampant in schools and many teachers and administrators looked the other way, viewing it as a normal rite of passage for youth.
Our current political situation is a logical conclusion of many years of celebrating competition and success that are achieved at the expense of others. However, these qualities and mindsets existed before and will exist long after this administration is gone. Of course, not all competition is bad nor is the ambition to win inherently wrong. But left unchecked, this mentality leads to more disparity and deeper gaps in the already large chasm we’ve created between the “haves” and “have nots.” Acknowledging this is an essential step to making sense of the present and helping our youth build a better future. It is also important to acknowledge that while the dominant American culture tends to prioritize competition over community, other cultural subgroups do not share those values. One of America’s greatest strengths is its diversity and we can all benefit by learning from cultures within this country that prioritize community and shared responsibility.
We must be intentional about the behaviors we model for today’s youth and how we reinforce pro-social choices.
Fortunately, as this reality unfolds in front of us, there is a counter-trend. After years of being ignored, the psychological and social skills needed by youth and their educators are finally being emphasized. Schools, after school programs, summer programs, and even colleges are embracing these skills as necessary to preparing students to succeed in a 21st-century society and economy. With healthier social-emotional skills, such as empathy and trust, teamwork, and self-awareness, youth are better at working with others, overcoming adversity, thriving, and innovating.
This shift to embrace social-emotional skills in education is an important step that needs to be reinforced by the adults in our children’s lives if we want to see a shift in the culture. We must be intentional about the behaviors we model for today’s youth and how we reinforce pro-social choices. The current state of our country demands a pendulum swing from selfishness, moral deterioration, and winner-takes-all to one of communal responsibility, empathy, and support.
The example we set can be a powerful one. To the mother worried she’d modeled the wrong values for her children, I’d share one of my own memories from childhood: The day my father showed me that it’s sometimes best to put what is right ahead of one’s own self-interest. We were buying tickets for a concert series and the cashier accidentally charged my father a much lower price than what was posted. But instead of walking off and celebrating our bargain, my father went back and made the cashier aware of the issue. I was 13 years old and very impressed that my father considered the impact the mistake might have on the cashier and chose to put another person ahead of his own gain. This is an example I carried with me and try to replicate in my own life. It was not the discussions we had about these topics that I remember, but witnessing the little acts of courage. We will only improve our culture if we try to set examples in all of the spheres we can influence.