wunderkind

No image. Oh well, whatever, never mind.

I am a member of Generation X–one of its younger members, born almost a decade after Kurt Cobain. I was not a latchkey kid, though I grew up with a lot of them, and from time to time I came home to an empty house. Once or twice, I broke in because I’d forgotten a key. My friends and I ran wild, sneaked into the park at night to swing on the kiddie swings, walked on railroad trestles. We drove too fast, some of us, and a few of us didn’t make it. One of my friends had a tendency, on a deserted country road at midnight, to yell in a London accent “Look, we’re British!” and jerk the car over into the oncoming lane.

Even so (and as much as we might have liked to have been), we were not ignored by adults, particularly if we were either Good Kids or Bad Kids. The Bad Kids, of course, got their share of attention–for snorting crushed Smarties on the bus, piercing themselves with safety pins in the back of the music classroom during chorus, doing now-unthinkable things like harassing each other via X-rated messages scrawled in pencil on ruffle-edged torn-out notebook paper. Good Kids got a different kind of attention, a sort of laser-focused, blindered praise. If you were a Good Kid, you might be doing Bad Kid things, but you managed only to get caught making As and winning competitions.

I was good at a lot of things–good enough that this meant, to adults, that I must be good at all things. It explains how I ended up in an AP Calculus classroom whose door I should never have darkened. Mine is a long litany of pre-real-world successes–ribbons for field days, trophies for forensics, letters for athletics and academics, spelling bee championships, solos, recitals, essays published in the local paper, citizenship awards, scholarships. The accolades continued through college and then, suddenly, stopped.

It has taken me a long time to realize that childhood set me up to believe that I could do anything, succeed at anything, and that this is not necessarily a good thing. How often do we trot out the old platitude that “you can be anything you want to be!”

No, you can’t. And I wonder, as a Gen-Xer who still struggles with ex-Golden Child syndrome, what kind of stupendous disservice the age of helicopter parenting has done to the children who have somehow survived its suffocation. If reality hit me hard, what is it going to do to anyone who grew up getting trophies for showing up?

I suspect this syndrome is especially prevalent among creative types, in particular those of us who haven’t yet broken into our fields. I went from winning writing contests as a student (I even got disqualified once because a judge said my work was “too good” to have been done by a child) to a constant stream of rejection letters as an adult. My writing is better now. Believe me. Every time I rediscover my middle school journal, I thumb through it while cringing visibly. My high school journals are no better, yet with 100% more angst. I was years away from the realization that obsessing about death does not make one mind-blowingly original.

On rough days, I wish that I hadn’t received so much praise as a kid, that it could somehow be redistributed across the span of my lifetime. On the roughest days, it is easy to believe that I maxed out my quota of acclaim at the ripe old age of 20.

I think about this as a teacher, as a parent. How do I affirm my kiddos without setting them up for disappointment, for a crushing yet unmerited sense of failure? We’re surrounded by stories, highlighted and decked out in neon and blaring from the loudspeakers of the internet, about “30 People Who Made It Before 30!” and “20 Under 20 to Watch!” The age limit seems to be slipping backward. I’m just waiting for a “Top 5 Multimillionaires Under 5!”

I’ve read the usual articles about how social media is making kids unhappy, depressed, and I don’t doubt it. I wonder, though, if part of the problem isn’t the constant affirmation. As a Gen-Xer, I grew up in the Last Great Age of Benevolent Neglect. I am often struggling, floundering in the rejections, in the lack of feedback for almost anything I do, in the feeling of screaming into the void. What happens to a generation that grows up under the microscope, praised for every movement, celebrated for every expected milestone?

I have no answers. I keep thinking about this wunderkind problem, wanting to suss it out, figure out how to move past it, but I’m no closer now than when I began. We know that if children are never praised, they don’t thrive in the same ways, struggle to develop confidence. But what about over-praise? Its effects may be subtler, and slower to develop, but they are there, always under the surface, waiting for the less fertile soils of adulthood in which they take root and burgeon.

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