Should We Stop Telling Our Kids That They’re Special?

It’s easy to see the downsides of our national cult of self-esteem. But being ‘special’ has enabled many kids to be their best.

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Wellesley High School families who’d come to graduation last week expecting a warm bath of clichés were treated to a bracing shower from David McCullough, Jr., instead. “You’re not special, you are not exceptional,” the English teacher stated with unexpected bluntness. “You have been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, and bubble-wrapped, feted and fawned over.” McCullough’s straight talk was aimed at Americans’ “love of accolades more than genuine achievement” and the cheapening effect of making everything special. Many families apparently found McCullough’s reality check refreshing and inspirational; his speech quickly made the usual Youtube rounds.

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But before we get too carried away blaming helicopter parents for sheltering teens, it’s worth recalling the merits of being special and why our society made such a shift in the first place.

To be sure, there’s plenty of confirmatory evidence that the self-esteem train has derailed: grade inflation and bloated “honors” classes; cheating and sports scandals; resume padding and college consulting mills. Enterprising families can game the system with trumped up medical diagnoses that yield performance enhancing drugs and extended time on standardized tests. Combined with a decline in basic summer job skills, McCullough had a point in wondering what’s so “special” about these privileged, ego-involved students.

But let’s not forget what it looked like a generation or two ago when kids weren’t so special. There was a tendency to view children not as unique individuals but as a monolithic category of people to be managed, controlled, and often ignored. The one-size-fits-all approach to childrearing left many kids abandoned, emotionally and academically, and at risk for a number of poor social outcomes.

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Some of those outcomes have improved in recent years. Today’s teenagers are smoking and drinking less, remaining virgins longer, using more birth control when they do have sex, and dropping out of high school at half the rate of thirty years ago.

Take learning disabilities. Before each child became “special,” a child with a learning disability could face a decade or more of agony and a fast track to the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. But changes in pedagogy that support atypical learning styles and abilities have opened up opportunities for millions of kids whose failures would have carried a costly public price tag. That’s easy to forget when people decry the coddling-and-cosseting trend.

Similarly, girls, children of color, gay teens, children with physical disabilities, even kids with allergies or unique religious and cultural attributes have all benefited from the chance to feel “special” and as worthy as any child of protection and respect. You can still hear words like ‘retard” and ‘fag’ on the playground, but there’s a shrinking pool of kids (and adults) who don’t recognize that this is totally unacceptable.

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McCullough criticized the kids who “build medical clinics in Guatemala” for school credit and self-aggrandizement, rather than performing an act of giving from their own intrinsic motivation. But don’t we sometimes acquire our moral values as a result of our actions, and not always the reverse? Isn’t building a medical clinic in Guatemala –even if the motivation was, as McCullough suggests, “What does it get me?” – better than not building one?

It’s too easy to write off another selfish “me generation” when the reality is more nuanced. Yes, we need to do a better job of teaching our children that they’re not the center of the universe. But we need to strike a balance and not just overcorrect. Eighteenth century rabbi Simcha Bunim may have had the best advice for this. To avoid becoming either conceited or despondent, he suggested every person carry two pieces of paper in his pocket with opposing advice from the Torah: “For my sake was the world created,” and “I am but dust and ashes.”

Adult life and the economic realities that young people face will wisen them up soon enough. In the meantime, we shouldn’t forget the upside of being special: it has undoubtedly given many young people a chance to reach for the stars.

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