There was a time when school taught youngsters how to belong to a community.
Every child is unique but today's youngster isn't told the other half of the phrase - you are unique, just like everyone else. Instead, children are now told over and over how special they are, which creates a sense of entitlement. Instead of building confidence and self-esteem on the secure foundation of accomplishment, cooperation, effort and learning from mistakes, the modern education system rewards kids simply for showing up and applauds trying as if it was the end goal, rather than the beginning of the process.
As they head back to school today, grade school students are taught that the community plays second fiddle to their individuality. The message students get in the modern classroom is that they are already wonderful and gifted each in their own way, rather than these being traits they actually have to work on and earn. Telling kids they're great improves their confidence and self-esteem, we have been told. Education plans customized around each student maximizes the potential of each child is the prevailing wisdom.
If only any of this were true.
In their book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living In The Age Of Entitlement, psychology professors Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell cite study after study that shows how harmful this style of education is to today's children. Instead of being taught to be contributing members to society, they are learning that society will adapt to their needs and wants.
It's not just the fault of educators, of course. Today's parents are a big part of the problem, too, having bought into the notion that their kids shouldn't spend any time attending the school of hard knocks. Previous generations were too hard on children, Twenge and Campbell agree, but kids from that era also learned the value of responsibility and respect, both to themselves and to others.
Children today are protected from abusive parents and teachers, which is good, but they are also protected from the valuable lessons learned from failure, disappointment, rejection, defeat and perseverance, and this is bad, not just for kids but for all of society.
Economic productivity drops, personal relationships suffer, volunteering and philanthropy decrease while incidents of violent crime and mental health issues rise, all as a result of the increasing sense of entitlement felt by many individuals, the psychologists argue.
That narcissism is taught through popular culture and by parents and teachers.
Unfortunately, harping about "kids these days" and "spoiled brats" sounds like discrimination against the young and a reverse sense of entitlement among parents and grandparents who all hiked to school in bare feet through six feet of snow, uphill both ways.
That also isn't true, Twenge and Campbell show in their book.
Comparison studies and surveys show people in general and youth in particular are more self-absorbed than they once were. What a previous generation called arrogance is now called confidence. When asked if the world would be a better place if they were in charge, the majority of people answer yes today, far more than they did 40 years ago. Besides being a mathematical impossibility (more than half can't be better than average, after all), it also demonstrates the ridiculous notion too many people have that they would be fantastic at doing anything they have no experience doing (like being in charge of the world), simply based on who they are.
Changing the narcissism running through modern society starts with teachers and parents having the courage to recognize they aren't special and neither are the children in their care. That's the real glue that holds communities, families and individuals together.