Here’s my theory of the week: The focus on protecting the self-esteem of young people over the past generation or two, launched by the “Me Generation” of baby boomers, has created an environment of intolerance, lack of empathy and anger.

Now for the back story.

I interviewed professor Ryan Martin, PhD. author of Why We Get Mad: How To Use Your Anger For Positive Change about the Good, Bad and Ugly of Anger. While evolutionarily anger served a purpose in helping us survive attacks by enemies and even solve problems better, it has now overtaken us as a driving emotion in our day-to-day lives. 

There are several factors that are causing this, one in particular is social media. We’ve all seen the vitriolic language used online even by those who would never utter a harsh word in person… yet they feel emboldened by the semi-anonymity of the electronic platform. In addition, Dr. Martin specifically talked about the echo chamber of social media in which individuals are isolating themselves to connect only or primarily with like-minded “friends.” When you surround yourself with like-minded people it’s easy to pile on with points of view, fanning a spark of frustration into a raging fire.

Yes, social media is fanning it. But to me it’s far deeper.

Baby boomers were termed the “Me Generation” by author and journalist Tom Wolfe. As Smithsonian Magazine wrote: Wolfe described Boomers as creating a “Me Generation” that was rooted in postwar prosperity. Good times created “the luxury of the self,” and Boomers happily involved themselves with “remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self…and observing, studying, and doting on it (Me!)” Their mantra was, “Let’s talk about Me!

Fast forward decades, and, driven by a desire to help their children have “the best life,” Boomers became helicopter parents, stripping their children of their abilities to make independent decisions, and fend for themselves at school and in their social lives. Parents picked out their clothes and monitored their homework with online portals. They scheduled play dates and over-programmed them with organized activities. No one had to develop “survival tactics” in the school yard or at the infamous cafeteria lunch table since parents would intervene in the event of a problem. And the whole class got invited to the birthday party and bar mitzvah, so no one felt left out and had their feelings hurt.

Then came participation trophies for sports, aggressive grading on a curve and the cancellation of class valedictorians—all in the name of defending the self-esteem of those who were not excelling in a given area of achievement.

At colleges in the last five years, emotional support animals and counselors were brought in to help students deal with their disappointment after the 2016 election. The demand for safe spaces in colleges and offices have only increased as conversations about who is making whom feel uncomfortable seems to be a daily headline.

This all makes so much sense…protect your kids from the cruelty of childhood and the very real challenges and painful experience of life. But, at the same time, it has also protected them from hurt feelings, missed homework assignments and poor grades, depriving them of the emotional development that comes with facing challenges and conquering them. 

Instead of helping strengthen the performance and resolve of their children, the Me Generation has created offspring who on the one hand feel vulnerable and victimized, and on the other hand are princes and princesses who are utterly egocentric having been told for their entire lives how precious they are. They have been the center of their parents’ universes and the world has adapted to protect them. Their expectations for having their needs satisfied are high, because they have spent their lives being told how deserving they are while getting what they want when they want it.

But here’s the kicker…which leads me back to anger….

One of the precursors to anger that Dr. Martin talks about is something he calls “demandingness”…in other words, an individual’s high demand to satisfy their own needs. When needs are satisfied swiftly and fully, all is right in the world. But the minute that those needs are not met, they are let down and the reaction is anger.

I have often referred to two-year-olds as being “libidos with legs”—wanting only to satisfy their needs now. To me, we now have kids, teens and adults who are libidos with legs, wanting their whims satisfied and intolerant of alternate thought, actions or the need for even the slightest delay.

We talk about being empathetic and open to other thoughts and needs…generous with our hearts and pocketbooks. Well, that seems like a very challenging task if we have generations who are only generous and empathetic if it fits with their world view. All of this focus on building up the self-esteem of individuals has merely made them self-centered, narcissistic individuals who actually believe what they have been told—they are special and the center of the universe. That means, these immature minds that never fully developed emotionally also never developed coping skills. Is it any surprise, then, that they react with anger rather than empathy, communication, patience and problem-solving skills when things don’t go their way?

Protect our children from pain…yes. Handicap them emotionally in the process…no.