* Names changed to protect privacy
“Yay! I scored!”
Little Timmy* pumped his hands in the air and ran to me, his coach, and his 4-year-old teammates on the soccer field.
“Yes, you scored for our team,” I said, pointing out how Joey* and Frankie* set up the play so Timmy could kick the ball into the net. The sweet, slight boy stared back at me with saucer-wide eyes, surprised.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“When you score a goal, it’s with the help of your teammates,” I explained. “It’s not just you. And you score for the team.”
As the coach for my son’s 4-year-old foray into soccer last fall, I was amazed to see one player believing game after game that he was the superstar, carrying the team on his back, despite having never played before. Sure, he was one of the better players on our team, but his arrogance left little room for other players to emerge with talent. Especially when he cornered the ball, pushed his teammates out of the way and made certain to take charge of the field.
He was a sweet kid with lots of innocent energy. And yet, he exhibited a self-centered cockiness that left me incredulous. An arrogant 4-year-old? How does that happen?
It’s part and parcel for a raging trend in our nation of over-confidence that does not correlate to actual intelligence, talent or grit. And this skewed perspective brings with it the potential for disastrous long-term effects as children with inflated self-images enter the workforce ill-equipped to handle the realistic pressures of adult life.
What’s the cause?
While 39 percent of American eighth-graders believe they do well on math tests, even the least confident student in Singapore outscores the most confident American student in this realm, according to the 2006 Brown Center Report on American Education. This skewed perspective was mentioned in the recent documentary, Waiting for Superman, and is evidenced in schools and college campuses across the nation.
“American kids plainly have more confidence,” says Timothy Deenihan, a father of three daughters who completed the first half of their education in Liverpool, England.
“That’s a cultural thing. Americans typically walk into any room – this is the stereotype, but borne out of a truth – and carry themselves as if they own it. Britons tend to apologize to you if you accidentally step on their toes when the bus lurches,” Deenihan says. “In school, it’s really hard to get British kids to speak their mind with any authority. American children, on the other hand, tend to speak with bags of confidence even if they are less knowledgeable.”
Deenihan cites the trend of giving awards for every step, rather than when they are truly deserved, as contributing to this heightened level of overconfidence.
“We are given awards for having joined a sports team. Everyone gets an award. There are decreasing accountability issues,” he says. “‘Kid, you’re wonderful and have a great heart, but you can’t make a jump shot to save your life. You do not get a basketball award.'”
It’s no wonder that our kids are growing up with conceit – considering that children today are told they’re special at every turn, says Laurie Ann Britt-Smith, assistant professor of English at University of Detroit-Mercy and a Beverly Hills resident and mother of triplets.
“Everybody gets dual messages,” she says. “You’re special, but you also have to be special in everything or there’s something wrong with you. It is difficult for kids to balance that. When I was a kid, it was like, you’re good at what you’re good at, and you didn’t worry so much.”
From birth, parents today are told their kids are super-special, says Britt-Smith. Games become “everyone wins, no one loses,” and children grow up with a sense of stardom, even when they’re average. Add to that the idea that every moment is celebrated as Earth-shattering – graduations for preschool, kindergarten, fifth grade and eighth grade, as examples.
There’s a very fine line between confidence and arrogance, says Conny Coon, a Berkley mother of two. “Americans in general are inundated with messages of how great and strong and powerful our nation is. And we ARE all those things. But so often, the message is, ‘We are the greatest nation in the world. We are the best place in the world.’ And after so many decades of hearing this, I believe many American adults have come to accept this as fact, rather than perspective.”
The message then seeps into our children’s identity, Coon says.
“It’s more valuable to step back and gain some perspective when it comes to the rest of the world,” she notes. “Rather than taking a competitive, better-than-everyone stance of ‘We are the best,’ it might be a healthier perspective to recognize that we are fortunate – and downright lucky! – to have been born or raised here, rather than entitled and therefore better.”
Indeed, while studies show that confidence does not correlate with success on educational tests, research shows that true grit propels individuals toward success in life.
In “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals,” a study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan and West Point, revealed that “grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon: his or her advantage is stamina.” The study was published in 2007 in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
This, says the study, makes all the difference in a person’s life success. Not confidence and not even intelligence.
In looking at the biographical details of Darwin, Einstein and other geniuses, the study argues that high achievement does not come from exceptional mental ability: “‘Perseverance is at least as crucial as intelligence. … The most crucial inherent differences may be ones of temperament rather than of intellect.”
The study continues: “Inborn ability is less important than commonly thought: The gritty individual not only finishes tasks at hand but pursues a given aim over years. Grit is also distinct from conscientiousness and self-control … achievement is the product of talent and effort, the latter a function of the intensity, direction and duration of one’s exertions toward a goal.”
“Children cannot rely on their intelligence alone,” says Hawley. With her own children and with her students and patients, Hawley strives to empower the individual with problem-solving skills so they can attack problems on their own. It’s also important, she says, to teach children to communicate assertively, not aggressively.
“There’s a difference between developing coping skills and overprotection,” she says. “It’s not like we can create a society in which our kids can walk around in bubble-wrap. It’s a gift to our kids to give them the coping skills to be able to problem-solve on their own.”
Britt-Smith doesn’t think kids are necessarily arrogant because that’s “a conscious way of behaving.” She asserts that “being conceited” might be more appropriate. It’s an outgrowth of being told all their lives how special they are while being cushioned in the everyone-wins-no-one-loses mentality of shielding kids from disappointment.
“I don’t think they have a clue how they come off,” she says. “It’s just this expectation that everyone can see how wonderfully talented they are. They are genuine in their surprise to find out that they aren’t nearly as clever as they were led to believe.”
“I’m not surprised when (I see college students who are) confused because they’ve either been told they’re super-special all the way through or they’ve been coddled,” says Britt-Smith.
The word being used on college campuses to describe this is “entitlement.”
“At the university, there is an expectation that everybody’s going to get As, without the work that’s involved in that,” says Lisa Hawley, chair of the counseling department at Oakland University and a Berkley mother of two daughters. “That might indicate why there’s an inflated view, thinking you did better than you actually did. We have a sense of healthy self-confidence.”
Both Britt-Smith and Hawley have fielded phone calls from parents of college students, inquiring about their children’s status or contesting grades. Of course, legally, professors cannot communicate with a student’s parents unless the student has given written permission. But the sense of (a) arguing a given grade and (b) having parents intervene on behalf of adult children is symbolic of the no-boundaries, consumerism approach to education in our country today.
Both Britt-Smith and Hawley agree that it is becoming more of a problem in the classroom. “Students used to take their lumps and get on with it,” says Britt-Smith. “Now it is more common to argue and want the professor to concede that somehow their view of things is the correct one.” Education falls by the wayside, with winning top grades taking prime focus.
“This arrogance and sense of entitlement has the potential to ultimately create a population of people who believe they are deserving of greatness, but who aren’t necessarily prepared or equipped to work for it,” says Coon. “Or who will be extremely upset or downright angry if they don’t get what they expect. They have the arrogance, but not enough substance to back it up.”
Making a change
The 2006 Brown Center Report indicates that over-confidence signifies not superior achievement but rather inferiority – “a defense mechanism against poor performance and skill level,” according to Mark Bauerlein’s evaluation of the report. It seems that our youth – and our parents, too – would benefit from a healthy shot of modesty.
“I don’t necessarily think American kids are arrogant,” says Libby Turpin, a Berkley mother of three and formerly high school English teacher in Holly. “In fact, I think many lack self-confidence. Kids are raised to be competitive physically, but mentally or academically, they are lazy.”
Turpin says her students exhibited an expectation of education “being handed to them without much effort on their part. Studying consists of looking over notes for 15 minutes and then they’re ready for a test.”
And yet, research shows that kids, teenagers, even twentysomethings do not have the cognitive maturity to transcend these trends. “A teenage mind is known to lack clear vision of reality, which is why as parents we have to let our kids fail in order to rise above,” says Turpin.
“I had to,” she notes. “I was the single mom who had a child at 19. I had no idea how hard life was, but I thought I knew it all. It wasn’t until I was 25 or so that I realized I will never know it all. Life holds a wealth of knowledge. You can’t teach that to a teenager; they need to live it.”
“Parents want to make the world a better place for their kids, but everyone knows that a little hardship builds character,” says Deenihan. “Kids need to learn to deal with setbacks and develop the abilities to overcome them, but they can’t do that when they are molly-coddled the way so many are.”
When our soccer season ended, several team parents – all well-meaning adults who love their children and cheered avidly from the sidelines during the season – exclaimed repeatedly about how the team was “undefeated.”
No mention of how the players coalesced as a team (at 4, it’s more important to learn to play nicely with others and which goal to run toward than it is to SCORE, SCORE, SCORE!), how every player improved from where they started at the beginning of the season and um, how much fun they’d had on the field.
Yes, there were a couple of superstars. And there were a couple of you’re-probably-not-going-to-make-a-career-of-this players. We gave no awards, just a photo collage with a quote about being part of a team.
We came in first in our league. But not because we expected to or thought we were the best. And that’s exactly the point.
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What stood out most to you about this article? Was the advice helpful in your situation?
This post was originally published in 2011 and has been updated for 2017.