A few weeks ago, I spoke to a group of high-school students enrolled in an Advanced Placement course on American government.
I said something shocking — at least I assume so because, when I said it, several students let out gasps or shook their heads.
Here's what happened. I had been asked to talk about government and media. But since both of these institutions are in disrepair I got bored with the subject matter. So I moved on to what I'm really interested in at the moment — bigger issues about how human beings relate to one another. I'm intrigued by the instincts and idiosyncrasies of this latest generation of young Americans, the so-called millennials, and what is for parents the challenge of raising young children (in my case, an 8-year-old, 6-year-old and 4-year-old) in an environment where the messages they get on a daily basis seem to run counter to the lessons and values that we're trying to teach them.
"In my case," I told the students, "I'm trying to teach my 8-year-old that she is not special, that she is not the center of the universe, and that the world doesn't revolve around her."
Bam! That was the shocker. One young man called out, "Oh snap!" Others seemed taken aback. They seemed to wonder, "Why would any parent teach his kids that they're not special?"
Because they're not. We have a whole generation, by now maybe two generations, of young Americans who have been raised to worship at the holy trinity of Me, Myself, and I. Show me an 18-year-old in America and — in most cases — I'll show you someone is stuck on himself.
Blame the parents. These kids were told they were special since before they could speak, shuttled around in minivans with bright yellow signs that read: "Caution — Baby on Board." And the toy industry. These days, toddlers carry dolls that have been especially made to look just like them. Creepy.
And the public schools. In elementary school, these kids have been spared the humiliation of having papers graded in red ink because educators decided the color was too oppressive. And our society's obsession with self-esteem. By the time today's kids got to middle school, they had figured out that it didn't matter who finished first because everyone got a trophy.
And technology. By the time they entered college, these young people had logged thousands of hours on popular social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter where anyone can be a chronicler of events, and everyone's opinion is equally valuable.
And finally, we need to blame our society's culture of narcissism where everyone from actresses to teachers to naughty congressmen posts "selfies" — silly, self-indulgent snapshots that serve as instant, digital self-portraits. Look around, I told the students. It's all about us. We live in a society where there are an infinite number of ways you can order a cup of coffee, hamburger or sandwich. It is all tailor-made to suit our tastes. All because we're supposedly special and unique, and the companies that sell us stuff never miss a chance to make us feel special and unique so we'll buy more stuff.
My 8-year-old hears these messages every day. And so it's no wonder — as she contemplates the next toy that she absolutely must have so she can be happy — that she's convinced that she's entitled to have it because she's the center of the universe.