Skip to navigationSkip to content
frowning children with balloons
Reuters/Adrian Streun

Kids were spoiled long before they all got trophies for just showing up

Livia Gershon
By Livia Gershon

You know what’s wrong with kids these days? They want to “take things easy, to expect big returns on no investment.” This “seems to be natural to many a parent; but it makes the child flabby, helpless, and a parasite in the community.”

That’s the gist of a hot take from superintendent J.M. Greenwood of Kansas City, Missouri, writing in the Journal of Education—in 1905.

Today’s parents and teachers are subjected to a constant barrage of think pieces decrying helicopter parents, or mocking schools that give every kid a trophy. But none of this is particularly new.

Greenwood’s writing fits almost perfectly with the modern obsession with grit. “Children need to have their courage developed and trained, so that whenever they go at whatever is set for them to do, they will stick to it till it is finished,” he wrote.

A quarter-century later, Dr. Cleon C. Mason criticized the helicopter parents of his day in an article for The North American Review, offering a cautionary tale of three boys and their overprotective mother. He wrote that the children began as “sturdy little tykes… wholesomely dirty, disgustingly healthy—just splendid examples of young America at its best.” To Mason’s horror, the mother “suddenly developed a serious attack of child study,” endlessly reading about child psychology. Then, she took the boys to a child specialist who banned hot dogs and hamburgers from their diet and forced them to dress up in “neat knickers and neckties—for their self-respect, you know!”

“In the end I am not sure who suffered the most, the mother who grew more befuddled every day, the father who shelled out a lot of money needlessly, or the three boys bereft of every natural impulse who became neurasthenic little Lord Fauntleroys,” Mason concluded.

A few years later, in 1936, Pittsburgh public school administrator M.A. Steiner made an argument in The Phi Delta Kappan that echoes anyone who’s ever shaken their head sadly while uttering the words “participation trophy.” He wrote that, over the previous decade, progressive educators had promoted “giving every child only success experiences.”

“The pupil who goes through school without meeting and overcoming tasks which caused him to fail at first or has not had such experiences elsewhere will certainly fail to acquire the habit of perseverance and concentrated effort,” he wrote.

Steiner also railed against what we now call social promotion—letting all kids move up to the next grade, whether or not they mastered the current year’s work. The practice means students realize they don’t really need to learn the material, he wrote, while teachers are forced to work with unprepared pupils and “become so discouraged that … the spirit of the school is broken.”

Of course, none of this says much one way or the other about whether coddled children are really a problem—either in the early twentieth century or today—but isn’t it nice to know we’re not the first ones to worry about it?

This post originally appeared at JSTOR Daily.