Laura Rovi was smart enough to be lazy. An honor student at Elmhurst's York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois, she was accustomed to getting an A even when she cruised through a class.

She expected nothing less when she took a government course her sophomore year and let a classmate do all the work on their final group project, an advocacy video warning of the dangers of eating disorders.

This time, though, her lack of effort earned her a C — a mark that produced a curious reaction.

She wasn't guilty. She wasn't depressed. She was insulted.

"This was just in my face," Rovi, 18, recalled recently. "I was not used to that."

Rovi belongs to a generation of teens for whom praise has often come as readily as oxygen. They've been bathed from the cradle in affirmations and awards meant to boost their self-esteem — and, by extension, their prospects in life.

But some who research the psychology of teens have concluded that this trend, born of good intentions in the Age of Aquarius, has had toxic effects.

By their estimation, today's young people have been praised so much that some flail at their first taste of criticism or failure. Others develop a keen sense of privilege, believing they'll coast into a golden future regardless of their actual talents, accomplishments or willingness to work.

"There has been a pretty big shift in expectations. Adjusting to reality is going to be different," said Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor whose research has found soaring teen self-esteem.

Twenge's conclusion is not universally accepted — other researchers have found no significant changes in self-esteem from previous generations — but it rings true in many schools and homes. And it has some adults asking themselves hard questions.

"It's this entitlement that is driving many of us crazy. It's like, where did we go wrong?" said Rita Berger, a West Chicago mother of a teenage son and daughter. "We're kind of the root problem. In our attempt to give (this generation) everything, they have not learned to work or appreciate things."

The self-esteem movement grew out of the work of therapists like Nathaniel Branden, who in the late 1960s wrote that internal negativity could lead to lack of achievement. Change what people think of themselves, he contended, and you can change their destiny.

It was a theory in keeping with the times. Baby boomers were breaking free of traditional social structures to search for fulfillment on their own terms, and the notion of boosting one's self-esteem fit into that perfectly, Twenge said.

They carried the idea into the way they raised their kids, she said, while schools adopted policies that nurtured children's emotional well-being. The result, according to decades of data Twenge and her colleagues have mined in their research, is that youth self-esteem has risen sharply over the last 30 years, with a particularly dramatic jump since the late 1980s.

Brittany Gentile, a psychology graduate student at the University of Georgia, found that between 1988 and 2006, the average junior high student's score on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (a questionnaire that asks whether respondents agree with such statements as "On the whole, I am satisfied with myself") jumped nearly four points on a 40-point scale. The average score for a high school student went up almost two points during a similar span.

She said that while some of the increase could be due to the self-esteem movement, the rise could also reflect changes in the classroom.

Gentile cited a recent study that found twice as many high school seniors in 2006 reported earning an A average as seniors in 1976. At the same time, fewer students said they did 15 or more hours of homework each week — meaning teens are getting better grades with less work.

It is here, though, that the case for runaway self-esteem grows murky. Have teens really changed that much? Or are they simply reflecting changes in the world around them?

Take the fixation on grades. Mitchell Levy, who just graduated from Deerfield High School in Deerfield, Illinois, said he once enlisted his parents' help to try to change his mark in a Spanish class from an A-minus to an A. They argued that a student teacher had been unduly harsh and that the good scores Levy earned when the full-time instructor returned should have received more weight.