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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

MARGARET WENTE

Our precious little snowflakes Add to ...

The other day a proud father showed me a photo of his son’s graduation. There was the beaming scholar, diploma in hand, tasselled mortarboard on head, ready to take on the world.

“Congratulations,” I said. But something puzzled me. The kid is only three feet tall. He’s graduating from nursery school.

“Since when do nursery schools have graduation ceremonies?” I asked.

“Oh, they have graduation ceremonies for everything these days,” he said. “It was a big deal. All the parents came. Grandparents too. And of course the nannies.”

This celebration of a child’s every accomplishment, however slight, is something new. By the time a kid reaches 18, she will have accumulated boxes and boxes of diplomas, medals, ribbons, trophies and certificates for just showing up – whether she’s any good at anything or not.

There’s also a good chance that her parents will still be as heavily involved as ever – guiding, advising, applauding, and doing everything they can to protect their little snowflake from any sense of failure or rejection. The task of parental rescuing now extends well beyond the age the kid is old enough to vote.

A few weeks ago I found myself sharing a table with several business executives and a dean from a leading community college. All had stories to tell about overly protective parents. The dean described parents who help their kids write their essays (these kids are 20), and complain to him if they think their children’s marks are too low. A bank executive told us that it’s not uncommon for parents to call the HR department if they think their kid got an unfair performance appraisal. (He made me swear not to name the bank.) A manager with a major multinational told us how a mother called his office to complain about her son’s too lowly job description.

“I hear stories all the time from recruiters,” says Nate Laurie, who runs Jobpostings, Canada’s leading online student job network. “Parents call the recruiter and ask if he got their child’s resumé, or why their child didn’t get the job. When the kid goes for an interview, they go with her and sit in the waiting room.”

When baby boomer kids were young, there were so many of us that we were nothing special. Our parents never told us how exceptional we were. They never would have dreamed of complaining to the principal if we flunked math. They yelled at us instead. The threshold of adulthood was the day we got our bachelor’s degree. After that, we were on our own.

Today people have fewer kids, so it’s natural to be more invested in them. There is no such thing as an “average” child any more. Each one is a unique and special individual whose ego and talents must be nurtured like a hothouse flower so that she’ll reach her full potential. Parents pay more attention to their children than ever before in history. And they’re stuck to them like glue.

When I went to university I called home once a week, on Sunday night, on a pay phone at the end of the hall that I shared with 29 other girls. We talked for about three minutes. They knew nothing about my life, and that was fine with me. Today, parents (especially moms) text their kids 20 times a day. They know the smallest details of their children’s lives.

“A lot of parents can’t separate from their kids,” says my friend Barbara Moses, who’s a career counsellor. “Their identity is overly tied to their children’s success and failure. I hear mothers say, ‘We are having trouble finding a job.’ ”

One reason “we” are having trouble finding a job, according to Mr. Laurie, is that expectations are far too high. “Do what you love,” we urge our children, as if there’s a dream job out there just for them. But “do what you love” is probably the worst career advice in the world. It implants the notion that doing what you love can produce a sustainable livelihood – which isn’t always the case, alas. It also sends the message that if you don’t wind up doing what you love, then you’re a flop. That’s how you get freelance writers who are still living in a basement apartment at age 35 and wondering why things haven’t worked out the way they were supposed to.

Sometimes you have to compromise in life, but we don’t want to break this crushing news to our children. Personally, I’ve met far too many young adults who graduate from university with plans to work in development/save the world/find a career in environmental sustainability. There’s nothing wrong with these noble aspirations. What’s amazing is that no adults have ever levelled with them.

Reality will bite soon enough, of course. The idea that your job should be your passion is a misguided romantic notion that only the upper-middle-class can afford to entertain. In fact, most people wind up in areas that nobody ever talks about. “Insurance is a very interesting field,” Mr. Laurie assured me. “But no one says ‘I want to go into insurance.’ ”

The trouble is, snowflakes are not very resilient. They tend to melt when they hit the pavement. How will our snowflake children handle the routine stresses of the grownup world – the obnoxious colleagues, pointless meetings, promotions that don’t come their way? How will they cope when no one thinks they’re special any more?

I’m afraid they could be in for a hard landing.

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