As the parent of a Millennial and someone who writes about them, I think about the two “bubbles”—one lasting longer than the other with more profound consequences—that animated the lives of parents and children in the 1990s and beyond:  Self-esteem and Beanie Babies. Let me explain the connection.   

During my daughter’s early years of education, self-esteem and its possible loss were omnipresent.  The ambergris of the time, self-esteem was both prized and fragile, the magic elixir that would keep your child safe from drug use and other dangers, make him or her perform better in school, enjoy enhanced popularity and friendship, and be genuinely happy for life.

Guarding self-esteem motivated heated discussions and as well as many misguided efforts: team sports in which every player got a trophy; teachers writing comments on schoolwork in pencil because ink seemed too “permanent” and, in some places, banning red pens as being too hurtful and harsh; and ladling out praise for everything and nothing.

Criticism, even the constructive kind, was thought to be too damaging. As Dr. Arthur Levine, who has studied the Millennials and written a book about them, noted in an interview: “This is a generation that was not allowed to skin their knees. They got awards and applause for everything they did, even if it was being the most improved, or the best trombone player born on April 5.” 

Another parent of a Millennial recalls that “the whole ‘I’m special’ movement was very influential in my child’s preschool. They all had a chance, for instance, to be ‘person of the day.’” Traditional science and history fairs—that is, competitions—were under attack by parents who felt that “not winning” (a softer way of describing losing which fit right into the zeitgeist) might damage their kids’ self-esteem. In one town, a compromise was reached to deal with the fragility of kindergarteners’ self-esteem:  a first and a second prize were awarded, with the rest of the grade “tied” for third place. Put on paper, it all seems pretty preposterous, but that’s how it played out.

Parents didn’t invent the self-esteem construct, of course; it trickled down out of psychological studies and, as it did, it grew into a virtual flood of articles, news reports, and books (including one I wrote). Parents bought into it because it was the prevailing wisdom of the time and who knew what would happen to your hapless kid if you weren’t ever watchful?

If Millennials today suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), their parents certainly worried about FAILURE—their kids’ and their own—in big caps, all of it tied to loss of self-esteem. I remember one mother who dyed her seven-year-old’s hair “to help her self-esteem” and the eight-year-old who came to school fully made up so “she’d feel better about herself and more confident.” There were the parents who sent their nine-year-old son to a life coach to help build up his apparently fragile sense of self.

Enter the Beanie Baby onto the self-esteem scene. If you were a little girl, the Beanie Baby quickly became your heart’s desire, although many Millennial boys collected them too. For those of you who somehow missed the craze, Beanies were (and still are) soft and cuddly $5 plush animals which came with a tag that stated their names and “story,” like Freckles the Leopard and Allie the Alligator.  More important —even though many, many millions were manufactured— they were only sold through specialty gift and toy stores which only received a limited number so they were hard to come by.  And they were “retired” from manufacturing so an enormous secondary and collector’s market sprung up, along with magazines and books devoted to them. Gobs of money were made (and spent). Beanie Baby hunting—finding the elusive new one and being the first to have it—became an activity. (Admission: I was one of those parents. I was on waitlists at stores in Manhattan and New Jersey and, no, I don’t wish to calculate the exact amount I spent on them.)  

The stage was thus set for Beanie Babies to be conflated with self-esteem—a perfect Millennial storm. I remember one mother, an executive in Manhattan who worked full time and had a nanny, paid $250 for the purple “Princess” bear. She was a commemorative for the late Princess Diana and impossible to come by, and, yes, her kid was the first in the school to have it. A big self-esteem score there and a competitive sport that the Baby Boomers and their Millennial offspring could get into. (Admission: I acquired two Princess bears at $5 each some time later; my daughter sold one for something like $100 and was able to acquire the Garcia tie-dye bear she desperately wanted at a Beanie Baby convention. I’m not qualified to speculate on how that affected her self-esteem.)

And, then, it was over. The Beanie Baby bubble burst along with the dot.coms, production ceased in 1999, and that was that, and I, along with millions of other Americans, had too many of these things hanging around, collecting dust. As it happens, the self-esteem bubble was about to be pricked too, but it took a bit longer and, somehow, the message didn’t trickle down to masses—that is, parents and teachers— for longer than that. A 2003 report by Roy F. Baumeister, Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger, and Kathleen D. Vohs titled “Does High-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?” made it clear that the “you’re so special” approach was, to be blunt, not a very good one. For efficiency, I’ll quote from the summary offered by the authors:

  • The modest correlations between self-esteem and school performance do not indicate that high self-esteem leads to good performance.  Instead, high self-esteem is partly the result of good school performance.
  • Self-esteem has not been shown to predict the quality or duration of relationships.
  • High self-esteem makes people more willing to speak up in groups and to criticize the group’s approach…. Relative to those with low self-esteem, those with high self-esteem show greater in-group favoritism, which may increase prejudice and discrimination.
  • High self-esteem does not prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs or engaging in early sex.
  • Overall, the benefits of self-esteem fall into two categories: enhanced initiative and pleasant feeling.

And then there is the “ouch” statement: “In view of the heterogeneity of high self-esteem, indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism, with its undesirable consequences.”

Gee, you think? So while high self-esteem does make you feel happier, it also may give you an inflated sense of your own abilities and self-importance. As it happens, Millennials didn’t need that boost since what’s called the “above average effect”—the bias in thinking that causes people to overestimate their strengths and underestimate their weaknesses—was already alive and well, thank you very much. 

So, other than inflicting them with FOMO, how the did the self-esteem tsunami affect the Millennials? Well, I’m not inclined to believe that the need for ego boosts is addicting as Brad J. Bushman, Scott J, Moeller, and Jennifer Crocker suggest in their study titled “Sweets, Sex or Self-Esteem,” nonetheless the finding that college kids prefer boosts to their esteem to sex, food, and even booze is pretty amazing, on the one hand, and not surprising on the other.

So please pause before you praise your child just for being. Have it connected to something he or she has done. As for the Millennials, I suspect that life experience will, inevitably, introduce them to some criticism, perhaps even written in red ink, which may help temper that “I’m so special” view of themselves their parents foisted on them. Life, alas, isn’t conducted on a pass/fail basis.

And, by the way, if you’re in the market for some antique Beanie Babies, I have a bunch, at a rock-bottom price.

Baumeister, Roy F., Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger, and Kathleen D. Vohs.  “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?”Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol.1, No. 1, May 2003.

Bushman, Brad J, Scott J. Moeller, Jennifer Crocker, “Sweets, Sex, or Self-Esteem? Comparing the Value of Self-Esteem Boosts with Other Pleasant Rewards,” Journal of Personality, Accepted Article, DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00712.x

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