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Ep 179: Are We Setting Kids Up to Fail?

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Episode Summary

Shane Trotter, author of Setting the Bar, sits down with us to discuss how our technology-obsessed, individualistic culture might be holding our teens back from reaching their full potential.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Times are changing—and so are teens. The introduction of technology to each aspect of everyday life has fundamentally altered the way teens act, think, and experience the world. Our education system is not the same as it was 20 years ago, and it’s shaping our teens dramatically. Our culture has changed, pushing teens to become more individualistic than ever before. For better or for worse, growing up has become an entirely different experience than the one many of us are familiar with.

For kids, this new world has benefits…but also serious drawbacks. Young people are more connected than ever. They’ve got comforts and conveniences that we never could have dreamt of in our teen years. But rates of teen depression and anxiety are skyrocketing, and many kids feel like they aren’t prepared for the brutal reality of adulthood! For parents watching the world change, it can be nerve-wracking to wonder how we’ll help teens manage.

To understand how our kids can navigate it all, we’re talking to Shane Trotter, author of Setting the Bar: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Era of Distraction, Dependency, and Entitlement. As an educator, writer and parent himself, Shane has found himself observing some seriously concerning behavior from teens–behavior he feels is motivated by the forces of our evolving world. Today, he’s helping us see how we can give kids a fighting chance at a successful life! 

In our interview, we’re discussing the fierce individualism of our modern culture, and its effects on growing teens. We’re also discussing bullying, and the surprising reasons why Shane thinks we shouldn’t stop it from happening. Plus, we’re covering where our school system is missing its chance to truly prepare teens for the world ahead.

The Issue of Individualism

We want kids to be their best selves…but what happens when self-improvement becomes self obsession? Shane believes many teens are headed down this path–not because they’re inherently selfish, but because our culture puts self-interest above all else! Social media constantly bombards teens with advertisements and influencers telling teens they NEED to get the newest clothes or try the trendiest fitness craze. Over time, teens can become so consumed by consumerism that they turn a blind eye to the possibility of helping others.

But serving others is often the key to happiness, says Shane. Although material gain or changes to our appearance might help us feel good about ourselves, working towards a greater purpose is ultimately the way to a happy existence, he explains. Teens today run the risk of living unfulfilled lives, especially if we are constantly encouraging them to strive only for their own happiness, says Shane. In the episode, Shane and I talk further about encouraging our kids to work towards the betterment of others.

In our discussion about culture, Shane and I also touch on the difference between honor cultures and dignity cultures. Honor cultures push people towards accomplishment, he explains, by rewarding them for their achievements. In a world full of easy digital rewards and distractions, encouraging teens to seek true accomplishment can have a lot of benefits. However, Shane also acknowledges the toxicity of pushing kids towards constant achievement. We also discuss the positive attributes of dignity culture–believing every human has intrinsic value and dignity without needing to prove it. In our interview, we’re talking about how we can take the best parts of each to create balance.

As our culture and technology has evolved, one particular issue that’s taken center stage is bullying–whether it’s online or IRL. Interestingly, Shane doesn’t believe bullying is always a bad thing.

The Surprising Truth About Bullying

We’ve been working towards ending bullying in schools for quite a while…but what is bullying, exactly? Is it physical, verbal or digital? Is a fight between two students bullying? What if it’s an anonymous online post? The lack of subjectivity in defining what bullying really is can be a big problem, says Shane. As we crack down more and more on bullying, our definition of it becomes increasingly lenient, to the point where we might consider any kid to be a bully, Shane explains.

And being marked as a bully can be pretty harmful. Most of the time, kids who are harsh to others at school are behaving this way as a result of patterns in their home life. Instead of labeling kids as a threat, we should be examining the nuances of what causes them to bully or harass others, Shane says. Kids marked as bullies tend to develop a dislike of going to school or feel vindictive towards their teachers and classmates, says Shane. 

Plus, Shane believes the effects of bullying might be less detrimental than we often think. Kids are going to be up against a lot as they get older, and they aren’t going to have adults around to sort everything out. If we’re constantly intervening to fix teens’ social problems, we might be doing them a disservice. We could be keeping them from developing the conflict resolution skills and resilience they are going to need to survive romantic relationships, the workplace, and life in general!

As an educator, attitudes around bullying aren’t the only problem Shane sees in schools. 

Why Schools Need to Change

Are schools really teaching kids what they need to know? One of the biggest problems in today’s school system is that it has become too outcome oriented, says Shane. Instead of putting emphasis on increasing knowledge, they’ve become overly obsessed with metrics, ratings, college acceptance statistics and making sure every kid “passes.” Schools are often giving out easy As to simply move kids through the system without really challenging them, says Shane.

Shane explains that this problem has been worsening because teachers are under too much stress to accommodate every student! Some students have learning disabilities or are disadvantaged, meaning they may not be able to keep up to pace with the rest of the students. This means that teachers often have to lower the difficulty of material. But because they don’t have the facilities to create and keep track of lesson plans for each student, the whole class has to adjust to this drop in difficulty, syas Shane. This means kids are often not pushed or even taught at their own level!

Schools are also trying to keep up with the technological times, but often miss the mark. The use of Ipads and laptops in the classroom can encourage a culture of dependence on screens that’s already a problem for so many! In the episode, Shane and I talk about the rise in mental illness and drug addiction in teens, and how much of it may be tied to teens who are too attached to screens or who feel incredibly stressed, blocked in or even just bored by modern schooling.

In the Episode…

It’s always so refreshing to hear from educators and learn how we can build a better system for our teens to grow up in. Although there’s a lot of obstacles in our kids’ way, experts like Shane can help us guide them toward the life they deserve. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:

  • How boys and girls are affected by technology differently
  • Why happy teens aren’t developing addictions
  • How we can fit in quality, phone-free family time
  • What social media is really doing to the teenage brain

Thanks for listening. If you want to explore more of Shane’s work, you can find him at shanetrotter.com. Don’t forget to share and subscribe!

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Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When there’s concern over getting it “right”:

“The world is too complex to create a perfect enough system to offset every potential risk and harm. The only thing sophisticated enough to handle the complexities of the world is the individual human.”

-Shane Trotter

2. If your teen is focused on negatives:

(Members Only)

3. Remind your teen about the nature of messing up:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I just finished reading your book, Setting the Bar: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Era of Distraction, Dependency, and Entitlement. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to write this? Where did this topic come from? And clearly this is something you’ve been thinking about a lot and that’s close to your heart, so what led to you writing it all down?

Shane: Yeah, so I am a teacher, or was a teacher. Now I’m in the same school that I taught at, and I’ve worked into a different role as the strength and conditioning coordinator. And so I’ve been here for over a decade now. I’m 32 and it was just this feeling that hit me in the gut over and over again, where it is this overwhelming sense that the norms that our kids are taking on are setting them up for failure. And more than that, that we are not preparing our kids to thrive in this world that they were being set up for failure. And so particularly I started writing the book before I adopted my two kids, but now with an almost five-year-old and a three-year-old, it became more and more prescient we have to adapt, we have to start addressing these failing norms and giving a better model of how to live, how to thrive than what we’re putting forward.

Andy: Can you talk a little bit about those failing norms, what are those? What does that look like?

Shane: Sure. So I start the book with a scene of me riding my bike to work. I ride my bike to work every day, and passing a bus stop of kids going to the high school. We all have memories of ourselves at a bus stop, or most people. And for me, it was like, hey, you’re there with your friends. You’re joking every day. There’s kind of this natural back and forth, maybe some teasing, whatever it is, but you’re active, you’re engaged. You might be huddled up chilly, or whatever, depending on the weather, but there’s this kind of connected sense that happens when you’re a teenager riding the bus, or a young adult.

Andy: Totally.

Shane: And what I’m seeing is the exact opposite of that. No one’s standing, they’re all sitting.

Andy: Right.

Shane: It’s like seven kids sitting on the curb, head tilted, basically, their face, scroll through their phones completely disconnected. It’s like kicked in the face. It’s the Wall-E dystopia. It’s like, whoa, whoa, whoa. This is not how humans are meant to live. This is not right. The technology is certainly, I don’t know if it’s the sole source of the issue, it may be. And it’s certainly a tremendous exacerbating factor. There’s a phrase, “The medium is the message.” And so, clearly, our technology has affected the way we perceive the world, the way our news is being funneled to us, and the millions of messages we’re seeing each day.

Shane: All the marketing and everything changes us at a very deep-level into our subconscious, our expectations of the world where we look for meaning, all these things. So certainly the technological norms I think are untenable. And those are happening not just for our kids, but for our parents as well. The way email has crept into every, email, which was supposed to make work more seamless has only just changed the expectations, and made us feel like we have to be available at all times.

Andy: Totally.

Shane: Our minds are really, really being affected by the world right now.

Andy: Yeah.

Shane: The norms of surrounding technology being the most obvious today, but, also, I address the norms around eating norms that have changed significantly since the 1960s, family norms, habit norms that go into the pace of being a parent today, the select ball schedule, or whatever it is, the music teacher, but we’re just funneling kids all the time. So it’s kind of pushed us towards the convenience food life. And there’s this lack of family ritual at home, this lack of coming around a dinner table at night. And then, of course, after that rather than congregating in any sense there tends to be a falling into our own individual screens. We’re seeing a disconnection in society broadly.

Andy: You talk about really some interesting research in your book because I’ve heard before about the studies with the rats. Rats will just, like, if there’s cocaine in their cage, or something, they’ll just keep taking it, or morphine, or something, over and over and over again until they basically put themselves into a coma, or kill themselves, or something like that, but, actually, you kind of talk about some interesting caveats, or follow-up studies to that, that sort of add a really interesting dynamic to those findings.

Shane: Yeah. The basic paradigm we’ve all accepted is that it’s basically a linear equation these are hyper addictive drugs like our phones.

Andy: Totally.

Shane: Yeah, so once you pop, the fun don’t stop.

Andy: Right.

Shane: Once you have a taste you’re addicted and you’re going to go back to it.

Andy: Can’t do just one.

Shane: Yeah, until you OD. Dr. Bruce Alexander, he looked at it, and he’s like, “Well, let’s wait a second. These rats they’re social beings, they’re social species, just like humans. Humans, we find meaning, we find purpose, we find happiness in connection, and rats are the same way, just maybe to a lesser, less sophisticated degree.” So he said, “These are all depressed rats we’re studying because these rats are just living in cages isolated.”

Andy: Yeah. You take one rat and put it in a little cage all by itself, well, yeah, of course, it’s going to have some problems.

Shane: What would you do if you’d been living by yourself in a cage forever and someone gave you drugs, right? Yeah.

Andy: Hey, great, something to do.

Shane: Exactly. So his idea was let’s take a bunch of rats and compare them to these rats and let’s take a bunch of rats and put them in a rat haven. And he created one. He called it Rat Park. There was everything fun for rats to do, right? There was tons of rats, so social males and females. So there was rat babies came along, they got to do that. There was the wheel to run on, there was stuff to hide behind. It was a natural setting. It was Eden.

Shane: So then he exposed those rats to the same. They had the water choice. They could have water, or water mixed with morphine, cocaine, or something to that extent changed from study to study, but the finding that was so overwhelming is none of these rats overdosed. In fact, all of them eventually tried the drug solution and came back to just water, and then stuck with just water. They were not interested. It’s a non-conscious level, obviously, with a rat, but they were not interested in drugging themselves into oblivion when they were in a fulfilling environment, which to me just has profound implications when we look at. A little background, too, that is worth noting. Drug overdoses had never exceeded 20,000 in a year prior to the year 2000. So prior to the year 2000, we’ve never seen over 20,000 drug overdoses in the U.S. in a year.

Andy: Interesting.

Shane: We’re above 70,000 in the past year. Yes, we’re seeing a dramatic increase in drug overdoses.

Andy: Wow.

Shane: And, of course, skyrocketing depression, anxiety, suicide rates at all age levels have gone up. I think the implications from the Rat Park study are pretty profound in that we’re seeing this kind of crisis of meaning, crisis of connection going on. I think that is the underlying issue right now. Thoreau said, “Many are hacking at the branches of evil, but few are striking at the roots,” or some something to that effect, so if we’re going to strike at the roots, this is the roots of our issue.

Andy: I think there are so many ways in which we put teenagers in the little cage so we don’t put them in the rat Eden, and so many aspects of teenage life really are not fulfilling. And we’re not putting them in a situation where they’re going to thrive and feel purpose and connection and excitement, and what do we expect? We’re making them stressed out and bored and just forced to do things that they don’t want to do all day. And then we wonder why they want to use various drugs and devices, and risky behaviors to find something exciting, or distract themselves from the monotony of life. I think in a lot of ways, social media is a drug of choice for our current generations.

Shane: Yeah. It certainly has had kind of a narcotic effect, hasn’t it?

Andy: Yeah.

Shane: It does kind of the same thing. So on one hand you could say that the social media is incentivizing kids to put themselves in their own little rat park, go to their room and scroll, lay on the bed and scroll kind of typical teenage behavior that just spend hours that way, but the flip side of that is that it could also be the other way in, too, that in the absence of all this meaning that is more attractive. I think it’s a two-way street and it works both ways, but in the absence of meaning and in the absence of all these things, yeah, they’re using it as the drug.

Andy: So I thought this was really interesting. We talk a lot about values on the show and how to instill good values in teenagers and have strong values as a family. And you talk about some ideas from Mark Manson and the possibility that there’s good values and not as good values, or strong values and not so strong values. I really thought this was interesting. It could be helpful for people to think about how we can sort of examine our values, and how we can develop values that are more reality-based, socially constructive, immediate, and controllable, as opposed to the opposite. Can you talk a little bit about what makes good values?

Shane: Yes, absolutely. Values are kind of an obsession of mine so I’m glad you asked that. The idea being that good values should be reality-based, socially constructive, realistic, and they should be determined under your own control because you can’t control whether people like you or not, but you can control whether you have a code of integrity, an honor code, an idea of what you think is right and wrong, and whether you adhere to that. So you can always meet that expectation. These principles, reality-based, this is the pursuit of truth in general, and trying to live an authentic life, and accepting hard truths, which I think is fundamental to maturity, being able to have constructive feedback. So a lot of this is also rooted in basic maturity and the wisdom that tends to be practiced in almost every great civilization throughout time. You can go to Daoism, you can go to Buddhism, you can go to Stoicism, you can go to the cardinal virtues of Christianity. There are these universals that aren’t restrictive to any specific religion, or anything that civilizations have kind of come to.

Andy: Totally. Yeah.

Shane: And so I talk, also, in chapter three about cognitive behavior therapy. I see a lot of overlap between values and cognitive behavior therapy, the reality-based ideas. Cognitive behavior therapy is very interested in breaking down kind of this emotional view and helping you to come to a mature lens on the world to accept where you’re wrong, and to grow your maturity. And, again, socially constructive being such a key idea, too. I think the ability to have deeper meaning, and one of the things that are so lacking for our teens today is that they grow up in a very individualistic world. It’s a hyper individualistic world. And it has been since especially so, since the marketing revolution after World War II.

Shane: And that is wonderful and that we are comfortable and things are safer than they’ve ever been. They’re convenient, but there’s a downside to this, too. If we’re telling kids that there’s no right or wrong outside of your own mind, if we’re raising kids in a consumerist environment where they’re always pushed to do what is comfortable in the moment, and there’s always all these messages telling them they need this, need that, the drive of their life is basically just to serve their own wants. And there’s no idea of something worth sacrificing for, an ideal worth sacrificing for, an obligation to community, or that their behavior should be socially constructive, should have a benefit on the world then they will lack meaning. So good values are socially constructive. They add something to the world. And as any parent knows, once you start to make sacrifices for something bigger than yourselves, like a kid, you become happier than you’ve ever been. It’s like, whoa, whoa, why does anyone become a parent? It makes no sense if you just look at what it’s going to do to your life.

Andy: Let me just give up my freedom, take a bunch of money, and just throw it at this thing.

Shane: Throw it away, lose all sorts of sleep, but somehow we’re happier for it, right? I think that’s kind of a microcosm for what good values are.

Andy: And so many parents we feel like, well, I just want my kids to be happy, And that’s the be-all, end-all. It’s like what do I really want? I just want them to be happy, but that isn’t necessarily the message to send because if we just try and do things that make us happy then we paradoxically kind of miss out on a lot of more deeper types of happiness.

Shane: Yeah. My whole chapter five really is trying to clarify this idea, but, yeah, happiness, it depends on how you define happiness. We need a much more mature concept of what happiness is, I think. What the research tends to bear out and what ancient wisdom tends to bear out is that the greatest happiness comes in self-actualization what the psychologists, Abraham and Lasswell called self-actualization. The greatest happiness comes from becoming something greater, from having an ideal, and becoming more yourself and approaching your potential as a human being to be a better human, becoming more capable, more admirable, to become more yourself. So rather than accumulative adding up of pleasure and subtracting of pain, real happiness is a lot more sophisticated than that.

Andy: You talk about some interesting research in here about a lot of parents talk about screentime and how do I handle screentime? Should I limit screentime? But, actually, we need to look a little bit deeper in terms of not just necessarily just screentime of all types of screens, but looking specifically at smartphones is different than video games, or other types of screentime. And it’s different even between how it is used and how it affects boys versus girls.

Shane: Yeah, that was really interesting research done by Dr. Jean Twenge, and Jonathan Haidt. I think everyone’s borne the brunt of social media, but girls have been affected even more. Boys tend to navigate a lot to things like online games, which are community-based. They can play with their friends. They’re talking with their friends, they share missions. They are a somewhat constructive outlet to some degree. I’m not crazy about video games because I like actual real world physical connection.

Andy: Right.

Shane: I’d rather them paintball than pretend to, but still you’re just looking at acute, emotional, psychological effects that seems to be far more healthy than the social media, which all kids are attracted to, but disproportionately girls, young women have been, and you can only imagine what that does when, first of all, the amount of advertisement you’re being subjected to, and advertisement is intentional. We don’t have to make it an evil thing, but we have to understand what it’s doing. It’s intentionally trying to plant messages about things you need and it’s intentionally trying to manipulate you. I mean, that is the end goal of an advertisement, though, it’s planting a lot of seeds.

Andy: Right, tell you why you need stuff to be happy.

Shane: Yes, exactly. So rather than creating a sense in you that you can be happy without things it’s creating a sense that you won’t be happy until you have things.

Andy: You lack, you need.

Shane: You lack. Yes, yes, exactly. Do that 10,000 times a day and it’s going to have a psychological effect on you, and then you throw on the filters that you can do on the pictures, and the effect of posting comments and looking for likes, and looking for this. It is overwhelming. And me, being someone who is acutely very aware of these effects, anyone can fall into this.

Andy: There’s also really interesting things in your book about real world bullying, and specifically whether it’s a good idea to try and get rid of it all.

Shane: Yeah.

Andy: I think everybody kind of agrees bullying is bad. We don’t want people to be bullying each other, but then where that kind of leads us to, or where we end up with, or this idea that as we start to get rid of things, we look for ever increasingly smaller instances of it. I wonder how you think parents should respond to bullying, or treat bullying?

Shane: Yeah. So it’s all like an onion, right? So it goes to deeper philosophy, I think, has to be uncovered first, but that was interesting research to me to read, and learn more about as well. At the end of the day, I think that we have to understand that the world is too complex to create a perfect enough system to offset every potential risk and harm that what we’ve always known is that the only thing sophisticated enough to handle the complexities of the world is the individual human. So what we should be doing is creating a stronger, more capable human who has the ability to weather the inevitable hardships that will come its way, and perhaps even thrive because of them, which is often the case in the most successful people. All those hardships are what revealed a strong individual capability in them, and that opened the door to all their greatest accomplishments and happiness. I think that understanding is fundamental.

Shane: With that, the other background is, yes, the Blue Dot Study, as I refer to it in the book, perhaps the most important thing for people to understand about human nature that in the modern world. They put people in front of a computer screen and they were shown a succession of dots and they were tasked with deciding whether a dot was blue, or not blue, okay?

Andy: Okay.

Shane: And the dots ranged from blue to purple, right? In their honest view, right?

Andy: Right.

Shane: And so they saw 1,000, and within the first 100 they had about a 50/50 split between, actually, blue, technically, blue blues, and technically purple purples, but as they got towards 1,000, more and more were purple, and yet they found just as many blues, it still ended up 50. So by the end of it, the last 100 were almost all purples. And they’re still coming up with about a 50/50 blue to purple split. And this is done in trial after trial. They found the same with faces, people look mean or not mean, basically, and they go through that. And the same thing as you find more and more nice faces, people still find just as many means because they’re set to find those. And the same thing they found with unethical business proposals. If they’re looking for unethical business proposals, and the number of unethical business proposals goes down, people find just as many.

Shane: This is super, super important for understanding the human psychology. The technical term is prevalence-induced concept change, but it’s that when the signal you’re looking for is reduced, you don’t necessarily find less of it. You change your definition, so you’re finding just as much. So apply that to the modern world where our idea of trauma has broadened, our expectations about how comfortable we should be, just of hardship in general.

Shane: Mark Manson, he’s argued that our brain naturally seeks problems. It’s a problem seeking mechanism. Really our meaning is that it comes from having better problems. If you feel a sense of purpose, then you feel that there’s a problem you’re excited to solve, right? Something you care about and care about doing something about. So if we are a problem seeking organism, a pain seeking organism, natural pains in our life are reduced, we’re going to find just as many pains.

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About Shane Trotter

Shane Trotter is the author of Setting the Bar. He is an educator, speaker, and a High-School Strength and Conditioning Coordinator, and has worked with students for over a decade.  

He’s  been featured by multiple coaching clinics as well as Spartan.com. His articles have been published on Quillette, Areo, and Breaking Muscle, where he was an Expert Coach in Residence and helped start the Breaking Muscle podcast. His blog, Inspired Human Development, focuses on exploring the principles of human thriving. He also publishes a free weekly newsletter: Stuff They Never Told You. 

He is a dedicated husband and father of two.

Want More Setting the Bar!?

Find Shane Trotter on his website, and Twitter.