As the droplets ran down his face, American Idol ‘s resident rapier, Simon Cowell, looked incredulous. After a window-shattering rendition of Shakira’s “Underneath Your Clothes,” a rejected contestant, 18-year-old Jonathan Rea of Houston, had walked over to the judges’ table as if to shake Mr. Cowell’s hand, and instead hurled a cup of water at him.
It may have been a watershed moment-not just for Fox’s cheesy talent contest, going strong with 29 million viewers in its third season, but for a culture awash in mediocrity convinced that it’s genius. Mr. Rea’s rage and disbelief at receiving criticism is all too familiar, now that the most coddled generation in American history has come of age.
Like everyone from Paris Hilton, whose attorneys confidently announced in the middle of her sex-tape fiasco that “Hilton is a model and actress [and] is at the beginning of what she had hoped would be a long and prosperous career,” to George W. Bush, the President who wears his below-average credentials like a badge of honor, Mr. Rea is suffering from what one might call Too Much Positive Reinforcement: The belief, against all available evidence, that one is meant for Special Things.
TMPR has now officially reached epidemic proportions. How else to explain the legions of the talent-free who wait in line for days for a chance to show their stuff to Mr. Cowell and company-then are stunned to be told they don’t make the grade? After decades of upper-middle-class parenting designed to shield Junior from all possible failure, and from any honest judgement of his talents, it’s no wonder we need television shows like American Idol and its fellow showcase for TMPR victims, The Apprentice . These shows are delivering the spanking-sorry, the time-out -that our culture of bloated self-evaluation is subconsciously craving. Their success signals that we may be reaching the end of a long national delusion. There is simply not room enough at the top these days for everyone raised to believe they belong there-and, deep down, we all know it.
Case in point: our President and his Democratic rivals-all classic victims of Too Much Positive Reinforcement. George W. Bush, for example: Through years of poor school marks, alcohol abuse and business failures, Mr. Bush coasted through, both he and his parents oblivious to any shortcomings. Last October, Barbara Bush said on Larry King Live , “A lot of people, mostly the press, ask if George W. was a rascal when he was growing up. And the answer is, of course not. He was a perfect child.” Mrs. Bush was even further surprised to learn that Democrats were-gasp-saying nasty things about their Republican rival. “It gets a little old when 10 grown men run around the country not talking about what they’re going to do, but knocking my precious, courageous, brilliant son,” she said on the show.
Then there’s Howard Dean’s much-publicized WWE Smackdown press conference-the “How could anyone say no to me?” rant. Slouching poll results were swept aside like yesterday’s bad report card; Mr. Dean went into New Hampshire saying, “We really are going to win this nomination, aren’t we?” Voters ran through the options: Shake your head no and give him a little blanket and hot tea? Slap him upside the head? Or, perhaps, sic Mr. Cowell on him.
We’ve become so inured to the idea that a person’s self-assessment need not be changed by a little thing like repeated and utter failure that no one was the least surprised when Joe Lieberman took so long to throw in the towel. Before New Hampshire, he said, “The people of New Hampshire put me in the ring, and that’s where we’re going to stay.” Jon Stewart on The Daily Show put it best: “When did our elections become the Special Olympics? You’re not all winners. Not everybody gets a hug. You guys got crushed.”
Manhattan these days may just be Ground Zero for the TMPR epidemic. With two-and now three-generations of privileged parents “correcting” the sternness (or imagined sternness) of their own upbringing by telling their children they can do anything they put their minds to, upper-middle-class kids now routinely think they have no weaknesses, and that they have every right-not just every chance-to succeed. Bring on Manhattan-if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere!
“Kids will come in wanting to be a staff writer at Esquire right out of college,” said Eliot Kaplan, editorial talent director for Hearst Magazines. “I had this girl come in from this failed dot-com one day-that was her only experience. I interviewed her and asked her how much money she wanted, and she said $300,000. I couldn’t help it-I laughed in her face.” Mr. Kaplan added: “We’re happy to bring them back to earth.”
But the trip back down to earth is coming later and later. “When I was at Andover in the 1940’s, one in every third kid would not make it,” said Dr. Paul McHugh, head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. “Now in a school like that and even colleges, it’s really hard to fail out. They pick you up, prep you, dust you off.”
It’s the work world that increasingly functions as the personal reality-check service for TMPR victims. “Imminent failure has been postponed for lots of people until they hit the bricks of having to work,” as Dr. McHugh put it. “Competition for a paying job changes things, because it’s no longer daddy’s tuition money that keeps you going,” he added.
Of course, even late-stage TMPR sufferers have an inkling somewhere inside that they are not the next Leonardo da Vinci-maybe not even the next Leonardo DiCaprio. A nonstop stream of parental praise is now seen by psychologists as a parenting strategy guaranteed to backfire. “Kids will see through it,” said Ann Pleshette Murphy, parenting correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning America and a columnist for Family Circle . “If you’re full of baloney when you’re praising them to the hills, they begin to distrust your praise. They begin to think that they’re the center of the universe and they can always get what they want. But I think down deep they know that’s not true. It creates a false sense of who they are, and it can really erode your relationship with your kid.” The final insult, according to Ms. Murphy: “They’ll blame you when reality hits.”
My Mother, My Secretary
It all begins with what one Upper East Side pediatrician, Dr. Ralph López, who specializes in adolescents, calls “overindulged child syndrome.” “One of my pet peeves is to hear parents praising a child’s accomplishments as if they’re professionals,” he said. “A child who draws very well is a great artist, a child who dances very well is a great dancer. That implies that they are able to replicate every good performance. Instead, I’d like to hear parents praise the event, what they did. That’s a very different compliment; it doesn’t fill the child with expectations of being a great artist,” he added. “You’ve built up the popinjay to the point where they don’t have the credentials and skill to prove it.”
Today parents can’t bring themselves to do anything as forceful as refusing to give kids Halloween candy, which Larry David did on a recent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, nor can they be as hilariously indifferent as Malcolm’s parents are in Malcolm in the Middle . They just lather on the praise, layer after layer. After a while, neither they nor the young “popinjay” remember what’s underneath.
“If kids expect a lot of external praise, that’s an unrealistic expectation in the real world,” said Dr. Angela Seracini, director of the Disruptive Behavior Disorders Clinic in Pediatric Psychiatry at the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York–Presbyterian. “I’ve seen it in personal life, that certain people expect that other people are always going to be noticing them, and if it doesn’t happen they get disappointed.”
TMPR parents pump up their child’s self-esteem into an enormous vacuum, so the kid feels pretty great, but has done nothing in particular to feel great about. Psychologists have been trying to address that one for a while now: “People are making the point that self-esteem is a result-not a cause-of a good performance,” said Dr. McHugh.
“The self-esteem movement gained a lot of momentum just in the last decade, where it was a big deal in schools and in the workplace to praise people for their efforts,” Ms. Murphy said. “There were all these happy-face signs and good jobs and they would get trophies for everything. This is what a lot of experts are saying has gotten berserk.”
Meanwhile, our popular culture looks like a TMPR triage area. When kids hear from Mom and Dad that they’re bound to be the next Donald Trump, it’s no wonder they experience not just disappointment but total shock when the Donald tells them they won’t be. Ms. Murphy, and her husband, Stephen Murphy, who is the C.E.O. of Rodale publishing, said they always talk about the entitlement new applicants to jobs in their field now have. “There’s a whole generation of young people who think they can make top dollar when they walk in the door-and they don’t want to do certain things,” she said. “There is definitely a sense I get that this entitlement is pretty pervasive, especially in a city like New York. In areas where there is a reality of having to work your way up the ladder, that being willing to put in your time isn’t there any more.”
It’s easy to see why many Manhattan children see the adults around them as an army marshaled for the cause of their own greater glory. As Evan Flamenbaum, an educational therapist who works with Manhattan school kids, pointed out, even early in the school years, “Kids are being managed like young C.E.O.’s.” That includes an entire support staff: “Now having a tutor is worn like a golden accessory,” Mr. Flamenbaum said. “Everybody’s getting the best one, everyone’s getting the college counselor. Now it’s like, ‘What! You’re not going to a therapist?’ Every kid’s got a shrink, every kid’s got a host of tutors, every kid’s packaged for school. It’s like the result of this baby-boomer, very selfish, touchy-feely mentality, an immature mentality in itself.” The only antidote-and for many, it will be experienced as a psychic earthquake-is to spend some time elsewhere: “When you get out of your precious New York City bubble,” Mr. Flamenbaum said, “they’re not going to care how much money you have, or who your parents are.”
If the teacher doesn’t give you an A, have Daddy pay! If you can’t get into Yale, put a check in the mail! “The extreme obnoxious example is the child who has a fit when she doesn’t get an A, and the parents go to the school and raise hell about the teacher’s unfairness and the grade gets changed,” Ms. Murphy said. “You’ve done that child a huge disservice.” Mr. Flamenbaum added: “If Mommy and Daddy are people who have lots of power and money, you don’t know how to deal with difficult situations because they’re dealt with for you.”
The logical extension of this kind of upbringing comes in the workplace, which TMPR sufferers approach as if it were akin to summer camp-yet another “enrichment experience” paid for by their parents. Grunt work is not a concept that resonates with them: If Daddy’s a partner at Goldman Sachs, don’t you have the same authority? “If you’re going to the private schools, there’s a certain level of success your parents have accomplished and one of the problems that comes up is a lot of stuff is done for you-there are resources, tutors, accommodations made because the school will bend for you, there are concessions made by teachers who want to help the kids,” said Dr. López. “Kids get a sense that those accomplishments are theirs. The kid who’s doing O.K. in school has some learning issues, but Mom or Dad are doing secretarial background work-that kid is going to fall on his tail end in college because Mom or Dad is doing the secretarial work so well it goes unnoticed,” he added. “Parents help kids so much. They say, ‘You are terrific’-no matter what. If the kid does badly, parents will say, ‘Nobody in the class got it, must be a bad teacher.’ I tell parents, ‘If you are your kid’s secretary, I need you fired by third year.’ And then I’ve watched them in college, and all of the sudden they graduate, they’re wearing suits for the first time, and they don’t even know how to do an insurance submission because all of that has been done for them. They don’t even have bank accounts. I have one mom, she sent her kid off to boarding school and she would go up there to do his laundry. I said, ‘You’re joking.’ She said, ‘But he has so many things to do.’
“To me, if you’re in a boarding school, you do your own laundry,” Dr. López continued. “If a kid has an inner-directed style, ‘I gotta do it because it needs to be done,’ that kid will thrive and go and do well in the workforce. The opposite is the kid who doesn’t have that confidence and goes to a certain school and hides and parties-redo Animal House and you become Bluto.” The conclusion, he said, is obvious: “Kids who have had too much reinforcement don’t do as well in the workplace.”
Among the most excruciating of American Idol ‘s excruciating moments are those in which parents greet their booted babies, offering reassurance that the judges were dead wrong . “You’re amazing, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” the parents coo. In an age when parents are not able to confront their kids’ shortcomings, it sometimes seems like Mr. Cowell is the only one who will.
“Every single one of these people genuinely believed they were the best singers in America,” said Mr. Cowell with a laugh on a recent show. “We have thousands of contestants who think they’re fantastic, but in every year, it’s always the same. We’ll find only one or two really good people. That’s a horrible statistic.” Randy Jackson, another of the three judges, along with Paula Abdul, added, “It’s delusional behavior. Everybody thinks they’re better than they are.” More than the hopes of seeing genuine talent, it’s the drama of recalibration viewers tune in for. When contestants enter the judging room with dreams of their first platinum record and Us Weekly cover, the viewers are titillated: Here comes Simon Cowell!
On one episode this season, a frumpy, bespectacled Midwesterner sat between Mr. Jackson and Mr. Cowell, singing “I Was Meant for You,” while tentatively stroking their shoulders. A few minutes into the performance, Mr. Cowell stopped her and said, “I don’t think you were meant for us,” to which she coyly replied, “What do you want?”
“Someone who can sing in tune,” said Mr. Cowell.
Mr. Cowell’s biting lines make the viewer feel oddly cozy inside. It’s a wave of relief to hear him tell it like it is. Besides, any hurt he inflicts will be over quickly-what fuels the show’s fire is the rejects’ determination not to give up, not to believe anything negative they hear. Because while Mr. Cowell is convincing, one harsh line isn’t going to undo a lifetime of TMPR.
After the judging, the cameras catch up with the contestants, who argue through their tears, “I know I can sing! My friends love listening to me!” Slumping in the elevator, they shout, “Don’t tell me I’m not working hard enough!” Or they croak to the host, Ryan Seacrest, “I was too much-I was too good.” The best are those who, like Mr. Rea, the water-thrower, refuse to leave the room, thinking of any half-brained excuse they can muster. “I missed a few notes, but I can do better,” one scrawny, tonally challenged contestant whined. “I’d say you missed 99 out of 100,” responded Mr. Cowell.
Mr. Trump’s ripostes on The Apprentice are equally gratifying. At the end of the Feb. 5 episode, Mr. Trump sat at the table with his colleagues and the losing team, debriefing them. “You’re surprised to be beaten, aren’t you?” he said to the manager of the team. She nodded, and launched into an ode-to-myself speech, before asking what she could have done better. “What could you have done better? Used common sense,” he replied bluntly. Later in the episode, he asked another member of the team whether she thought the manager had failed. “You’re not putting me on the hot seat?” she said, as if in shock. “That’s what life is all about,” replied Mr. Trump.
Dr. Lauren Levine, a Manhattan psychologist, agreed that these shows are “speaking to some need in the general public.” And kids seem to be responding to seeing actual criticism on screen, if not yet at home. The truth hurts-so good. After 30 years of being told we are beautiful, we’re ready for our dress-down. The culture is primed for some brutal honesty, some real judgment. Kids want to see other kids being yelled at, and parents want to see others doing the yelling.
“Kids being born now are coming into a different world,” said Mr. Flamenbaum. “I think it’s starting to happen now-parents are going to be a little more capable of playing a traditional parenting role: ‘I’m in charge, it’s O.K. if you don’t like it.’ It’s O.K. to not get along with your kids right now. Kids don’t make good decisions!” So will parents look to Larry David as their role model? “Shows like Curb your Enthusiasm and American Idol show that kids are craving for directed feedback. Kids are still kids, they still want to be told what to do,” said Mr. Flamenbaum.
Gene Gardino, the head counselor at a Manhattan private school, said that kids tell him all the time that they’d like their parents to let them know what they’re doing wrong, but they don’t want their parents to be blunt and mean about it. That’s the trick that post-TMPR parents will have to learn to master. For now, vicarious thrills will have to do: “I think it’s a lot better coming from Trump than coming from their own parents,” Mr. Gardino said. As Mr. López put it: “They may watch these programs because they like to see the pathos of humanity. It’s brutal honesty-for someone else.”