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How to Stop Stealing a Kid's Ambition (Part 2)

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Last week, I explained how this generation of adults has unwittingly stolen the ambition of our children today. Certainly it's not true for everyone, but kids today are showing less ambition and drive than their parent's generation at the same age. Why you ask? In our preoccupation with safety and self-esteem, we have made them risk-averse and in our obsession to reward them just for showing up at the soccer game we've cultivated entitlement. Ribbons. Trophies. Medals. Stars. Prizes. Everyone is a winner. We've told them they are smart. They are amazing. They are awesome. It's all because we wanted them to feel good about themselves as they grew into adults. Unfortunately, this may work when they are 5-years-old. It doesn't at 10. It's backfired on us. Have you seen any early season episodes of American Idol on TV? Thousands of young people showing up to become a star who cannot sing at all. Someone told them they were gifted in music when they weren't. This may just be a snapshot of a generation. So many have been pushed in the wrong direction in the name of self-esteem.

By wanting our children and students to be happy, we may have created the most depressed population of kids in recent history. By leading them in this way, we have all but removed ambition in them. We have most certainly diminished their passion. Below is the reason why this philosophy has holes in it:

As their possibility of failure goes down, so does their value of success.

Think about it. If I grow up in a world where almost everything has been given to me, or made easy -- I start feeling entitled to it. In fact, I stop trying hard, because I know, somehow, an adult will ensure I get what I need or want.

One of the most valuable commodities we can cultivate in this emerging generation of kids is ambition. By this I don't mean selfish ambition, or some self-absorbed preoccupation. (Narcissism may or may not motivate a kid to try.) I am speaking of the internal drive to achieve and to grow. The motivation to excel in an area. It's the satisfaction of applying my gifts to something more than a virtual or video game. Further, it is a motivation that comes from serving or adding value to others.

I feel most valuable when I add value to other people.

Self-esteem is not something we can conjure up with a few affirming statements, or by giving them a ribbon just because they're pretty or showed up on time. It comes from them knowing who they are intrinsically, and using their gifts to contribute to a cause greater than them. I firmly believe ambition is part of the equation. Ambition builds self-esteem and vice versa. When I feel good about myself I tend to try harder. And when I try harder, I tend to feel better about myself.

So What Do We Do?
Here are some ideas for cultivating ambition in kids:

1. Let them fail, but when they do, interpret the failure with them.
Don't rescue them, but if they fall or fail, talk it over. Show them it's not the end of the world and is not a reflection on their identity. It is a chance to try again.

2. Tell them stories about your failures.
My kids love to hear me talk about my past flops, failure and fumbles. As we laugh together, they think: Wow, if you did that and still made it... there's hope for me.

3. Help them put their finger on something they really want to achieve.
Goals are important. They are targets to shoot for, and either hit or miss. Once you identify a goal, help them create a plan to reach it. Ignite a passion in them.

4. Establish rewards that only come as they work hard and make progress.
Separate the idea of merely "showing up" from putting out effort. Big difference. Set a reward that they can get only if they really excel.

5. Discuss your ambitions and how you felt when you accomplished them.
Once again, it's the power of stories. Talk about an ambition you had years ago, and how you felt when you pursued it; how rewarding it was inside to earn it.

6. Communicate your love and belief in them, regardless of what happens.
Love should not be a reward for performing. Caring adults must demonstrate belief regardless of their accomplishments. This is a solid foundation for ambition.