There were four of us at dinner that night, all in our fifties. After catching up on each other's kids, we started talking about the younger generation as a whole. Inevitably mention was made of the custom in youth sports leagues of giving out trophies to every participant. As an explanation for the sense of entitlement or exaggerated self-esteem that sometimes characterizes this generation, this is fine as far as it goes. Except that there's a problem. Who gave them the trophies? That's right. We did.
I coached several of my sons' teams and at the end of the season, no matter how poor the team's performance or indifferent the child's participation, I gave every kid a trophy. And why did I do it? Well, it was what everyone else was doing, which of course is deliciously ironic because no parent has ever accepted that as a rationale for his or her own child's behavior.
Parenting is a slow motion chain reaction that unfolds both privately and publically. In your own home you and your partner, consciously or not, reject or emulate how your own parents raised you. Meanwhile you and your generation develop a set of norms that in turn emerge as a reaction to the attitudes that shaped your own upbringing.
We Boomers were the children of people who endured a Depression and a World War and our parents saw that we got the material benefits that they were denied. But the pursuit of mass-produced stuff meant that feelings and all those things that make somebody unique were often ignored, and so we set about to correct that when it was our turn.
Children are notorious for asking lots of questions, but what most shapes them are the things that they take for granted. They accept the world that we create, but for them it is only a starting point. And so the act of seeing that our children have what we wanted but didn't get doesn't resolve anything, it just establishes another point of departure. In the end it just illustrates what it means to be a parent: you do what you think is right but you never know how it will all turn out.