Are You Using “Failed Parenting Strategies?”

Apparently I am, and so are you, if you parent millennials

You’ve got to see this,” proclaimed one friend after another. Simon Sinek’s interview video with Inside Quest, an online talk show with a self-improvement/personal transformation theme, was hitting my Facebook feed at regular intervals during the holidays, and since the topic was “millennials,” I paused to take a look. I’m the mom of four kids born between 1995 and 2001 — definitely millennials by any definition — and I felt as well-equipped as anyone to engage in a dialogue about who they are and what they want.

What I saw amazed me. It was a diss on an entire generation of young people, based on generalities. What amazed me even more was the overwhelming agreement with Sinek’s message. And to take my amazement up a notch, many of the people who were cheering him on were parents of millennials, the very group that Sinek accuses of “failed parenting strategies.”

In this era of “fake news,” what to believe? People were sharing this video across social media, begging their friends to watch it, writing in the comments that they agree with Sinek’s assessment, and lamenting the poor character of this generation of young people. Meanwhile, as I watched the video, all I could think was, “Where are his facts?” And as a corollary to this, I realized that if people were so quick to jump onto this bandwagon, based on the thinnest of evidence, it’s no wonder people are so easily swayed by the other stuff that scrolls by them on a daily basis.

Simon Sinek has somehow become an authority on the plight of the millennial generation. He uses the phrase, “through no fault of their own,” several times, implying that young people are somehow bumbling through life, screwing up left and right, not knowing what they want or how to get there. To be fair, he faults not only “failed parenting strategies,” but technology, a culture of impatience, and a corporate environment that only cares about numbers. Yes, I’m familiar with concerns about the addictive nature of social media, the difficulty of teaching kids that good things often take a long time to earn, and the cold-hearted corporate world. But as a homeschooling parent, I was particularly dismayed to see that I personally was being blamed for…what, exactly?

Where have I screwed up — especially since I had no idea I *had* screwed up?

Homeschoolers have all kinds of reasons to teach their children at home, and my own decision was strongly rooted in a desire to make sure my kids could think independently and clearly without being swayed by fashions or fads in the media. All I wanted for them was to be able to argue a point with proper evidence. I couldn’t help but think that Sinek’s speech, while entertaining, would have failed in my homeschool.

Given his reach and his ability to influence so many people (on his Facebook page alone, this video has had 2.6 million views — I’ve heard numbers up into the sixty and eighty million territory if you combine all the sources) this is scary. Let’s just take a moment to sketch out a framework for assessing an infomercial. Because that’s what this is, not a lecture based in facts and something that should cause you to question your parenting judgment and decisions (unless you want to!). If this were a paper from one of my kids, this is what I would look at.

First of all, who is Simon Sinek? The answer is, he has his roots in advertising. Not a judgment, just a fact. His viral TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” is fantastic. I would categorize it as a marketing lecture. Either way, he isn’t an educator, a psychologist, or anyone who works deep in the weeds of the human condition. He’s a marketer. Not only is he defining the problem (unfulfilled, depressed, unproductive young people), but he is defining the cure (presumably, his services as a motivational speaker and corporate trainer). That’s not a crime and it’s a well-traversed path. Think of all the commercials you see for items you never knew you needed.

Next: before you characterize an entire generation of millions, whom exactly are we talking about? Does this “problem” of depressed, unmotivated young people cut across demographic lines, or are we only talking about the interns that top level executives might see in their offices? At one point he references personal conversations with young people. Who are they? His sources can’t be a reflection of the entire country; we’re way too diverse to fit so easily into a niche based on year of birth and whether we work in an office environment. Many of us probably know at least a couple of struggling young folks. It’s tempting to think specifically of people we know and then to extrapolate out to the entire country. But that’s a logical fallacy. Until he tells us where he gets his data, this is no better than an anecdote.

And regarding those “failed parenting strategies,” is there a study? Sinek says that too many young people “were told they were special all the time, they were told they could have anything in life just because they want it.” Hello, out there — show of hands — I’d like to know if there is a single parent reading this essay who has actually said this.

He says, “So you take this group of people and they graduate school and they get a job, and they’re thrust into the real world, and in an instant they find they’re not special, their mums can’t get them a promotion, that you get nothing for coming in last, and you can’t have it ’cause you want it. In an instant their entire self image is shattered.”

This is a gross exaggeration. I would like to meet someone whose “entire self image is shattered” in an instant. Great for television, not so great if you want a real argument. If one of my kids had written that line of hyperbole, I would have drawn a red line under it with my pen.

Sinek claims that there is “an entire generation growing up with lower self esteem than previous generations.” How does he know this? Then he dives into the psychology behind addictions. He says that “almost every alcoholic discovered alcohol when they were teenagers.” This isn’t always true. He adds that when a teenager discovers alcohol as a way to cope with stress, “unfortunately that becomes hard wired in their brains and for the rest of their lives, when they suffer significant stress, they will not turn to a person, they will turn to the bottle.” Really? I’m not comfortable with such a broad statement, unless there is a citation.

Sinek also says that “too many kids don’t know how to form deep, meaningful relationships.” He says those are “their words, not mine,” which gives me hope that there is a study out there somewhere, a credible study involving a cross-section of society. Where is he getting this information, and how is he concluding that I helped to create this terrible situation?

This talk is based on Sinek’s own impressions. His claim that, “the best case scenario, you’ll have an entire population growing up and going through life and just never really finding joy,” is alarmist, to say the least. What is wrong or unusual about a young person trying to “make an impact” in her career? What is so strange about the older generation shaking their heads and muttering, “young people nowadays?” How is it that we still have many amazing artists and athletes in the millennial generation if every young person is glued to her phone and refusing to accept that it takes hard work and patience to excel?

We’re in a disturbing era where we don’t know if we should believe anything that we read, and someone like Simon Sinek has a huge platform and a lot of visibility. I’m dismayed that people seem to be mistaking his generalizations and personal anecdotes as factual. At the very least, ask yourself this question: does this guy sell something?

Be real. Live real.

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