Participation Ribbon: How the Self-Esteem Movement Failed Millennials

Katie Livingston
Staff Writer

According to polls conducted by Reason Rupe in 2014, millennials are perceived as entitled, both by older adults and by themselves.

But “entitled” is not an adequate descriptor for what’s really going on, and the root problem of what is causing millennial “entitlement” is often misidentified and misunderstood.

The proverbial participation ribbon is often used as a context to insult young people. It’s a criticism of some of the worst attributes of this generation: that they are lazy, weak-willed and have an unquenchable need for approval for doing the most menial of tasks.

While such criticism will cause just about any young person who hears it to pop a blood vessel, this idea isn’t too far removed from the truth.

Millennials do have a need for approval, a crippling fear of failure, an expectation to be good at things without putting in much effort, and a tendency to give up easily.

But why?

To call this “entitlement” is a misnomer. Rather, what millennials have is a fixed mindset. This mindset can largely be attributed to their upbringing, the upbringing, ironically, imposed on them by the very parents and educators who now criticize them.

But to play the blame game and point fingers at parents and educators would be unfair.

The real culprit here is the self-esteem movement, a particular brand of positive psychology that took hold during the 1980s and 1990s.

The self-esteem movement told both parents and educators that the key to raising a healthy, well-adjusted and successful child was to tell them how inherently great they were — the embodiment of the participation ribbon mindset.

Most millennials will be more than familiar with this form of praise.

They grew up being told by their parents and teachers how wonderful and special they were. How intelligent, important, talented, beautiful and inherently good. And on field day, all the schools give out participation ribbons.

While on surface level this seems like a positive thing, the research of Dr. Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, suggests that such praise is actually harmful for children.

Through her experiments with elementary school children, Dweck identified two mindsets that children applied in approaching difficult tasks: a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.

Children with a growth mindset look at challenges as ways to grow and improve their skills. They are not afraid of failure and don’t see intelligence as fixed, but malleable. In essence, these children believe in their ability to change for the better.

Children with fixed mindsets, however, are the opposite. They don’t believe that growth or change is possible. They view their talents, their intelligence and themselves as fixed. Challenging tasks are seen in a negative light, as impossible obstacles that they don’t have the skills necessary to overcome.

It’s easy to guess which group received the participation ribbon reinforcement. Those who were praised for their inherent value (“you are good,”, “you are smart,” “you are talented,”) displayed a fixed mindset.

In Dweck’s experiments, she gave each child a simple task to do for their grade level. Once the children completed the task well, each group received some form of positive reinforcement.

To one group, researchers offered encouragement based on ability: “Wow, you did well on this. You must be smart.”

The other group received praise based on effort: “Wow, you did good on this. You must have worked really hard.”

When the children were given the next task, which was much more challenging than the original, those who were praised for ability gave up faster, believed they couldn’t do it and became easily frustrated.

They would say things like, “I’m not smart enough to do this.”

The group that received praise for effort worked on the problems longer, enjoyed the challenge and saw it as a means toward growth.

They would say things like, “You know, I love a challenge,” or, “I was hoping this would be informative.”

These experiments revealed two important things: that praising children for inherent ability is causing them to get stuck in a fixed mindset and that children are highly sensitive to these messages.

If one simple phrase from a researcher can affect a single child’s performance so drastically, imagine what a whole childhood of such reinforcements can do.

Unfortunately millennials grew up during the height of the self-esteem movement. And those who grew up in the early 2000s aren’t exempt from its influences either, as practices from this movement lingered still.

Children of the self-esteem movement are now the supposedly entitled adults known as millennials.

Their laziness stems from crippling fear of failure.

Their lack of work ethic comes from a belief that if a person is good at something then that person should not have to work hard for it.

Their belief that they need a participation ribbon comes from constantly being handed them as children.

They are a generation who was told they were special and are now having to deal with the reality that they aren’t.

The irony of the self-esteem movement’s effect is that millennials do not have very high self-esteem.

And why should they?

Ideally, in light of this research, parenting systems and educational methodologies should change to praise effort over ability.

But what is left for the individual young adult? For the millennial who is already grown up and who has these ideas deeply ingrained within them?

Dweck identifies a four step process to changing mindset: learn to hear the fixed mindset voice, recognize that there is a choice, change to a growth mindset voice and take the growth mindset action.

For someone who wants to change their mindset, what this essentially boils down to is recognizing what kind of fixed mindset ideals that exist within themselves, actively denouncing them, and operating under a growth mindset, even if they don’t feel like it.

The reality is that millennials are not entitled; they’re paralyzed.

They’ve been thrown into a difficult world and the ideologies ingrained within them are doing little to help them tackle it.

This fixed mindset attitude is leading them to underperform in life, and they are crippled by it.

It does not help that they are receiving mockery for it, rather than the help and encouragement they need.

However, the happy reality of the situation is that people, their skills, their talents, and their abilities are not fixed points. People can grow. All millennials need to do is realize that they, too, are capable of that growth.

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