Who Are You Calling “Not Special”?

June 18th, 2012 by Dionna | 5 Comments
Posted in Gentle/Positive Discipline, Guest Posts, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity, Strive for Balance

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This story came across my Facebook newsfeed the other day: You’re Not Special Graduation Speech Sparks Buzz.”

In the article, Wellesley High English teacher David McCullough Jr. told graduates “You are not special. You are not exceptional.” He added: “Even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.” Many friends agreed with the article, stating that kids today were so spoiled and that too many parents make their kid think he or she is the center of the universe.

McCullough makes a statement on parents who overdo it in a modern society focused on collecting achievements. “You’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble wrapped … feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie.” But he adds in a video on Wellesley Channel TV YouTube page, “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. . . . We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.

Okay, at this point, I’m starting to really not like this guy. Then, near the end of the address he says, “The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.”

You’re confusing me Mr. McCullough. Let’s pick this apart a bit. Want to?

There is this cultural notion that kids today are so much worse, so spoiled, so disrespectful, blah blah blah. I won’t address this again because I already did that here, but let’s stop for a minute and consider Mr. McCullough’s words, “You are not special. You’re not exceptional. Even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 other people just like you.Is this really the message we want to send? That our kids aren’t special? Yes, let’s kill their self-esteem before they get out into “the real world” and their boss does it for them. I have to call a double standard on this one. We don’t want our kids to think they’re “special” but we adults all want to feel special, don’t we? Been on Pinterest lately?

truth Always a fruit loop Well it would be nice, but I don't think there is a market for it...

Such truth!!  our purpose Simple

All very popular pins, along with many more like it, pinned daily from those of us who want to feel special! (Like me.) It’s perfectly acceptable, and admirable even, for we adults to believe we are each “special.” Surely, if we think we can just “do what we love” (instead of that mediocre service job) and not settle for a life less than we are capable of living (because we are capable of SO much) and that we have been created for GREATER things, than I guess we think we’re pretty special? But don’t tell the kids that.

Let’s move on to Mr. McCullough’s next quote. “You’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble wrapped . . . feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie.” And this is bad thing? Because instead we should . . . what exactly? Tell them to suck it up, they don’t matter, rub some dirt on it, quit ‘yer crying, and call them brats? Why do we have such a problem with being kind to children? My guess is because its what our society is used to . . . NOT being kind to children. It makes us uncomfortable. Think about it for a minute. We don’t want to spoil the little darlings, do we? Because then they’ll grow up and get on Pinterest and pin ^^ that stuff. No, what we need are factory-assembled, robotic, emotionless children who sit down, shut up, and do what they’re told so as not to inconvenience us entitled adults. But I digress. Let’s assume that all children are “helmeted and bubble wrapped” these days. I admit to bubble wrapping mine a little too much, but why could that be? I have an idea!! Maybe all the fear mongering we’ve been exposed to the past decade or so? Danger at every corner! Bullies! Pedophiles! Terrorists! Giant mutated flesh-eating venomous radioactive crickets!! Okay, maybe not that last one, but give it some time.

Pampered. Doted upon. Feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Such atrocities! Unless you’re an adult. We like those things. We DESERVE them! We pay big money for it! And cosseted. I had to go look that one up. Cosset: to give someone a lot of care and attention, often too much.

Sigh. A lot of care and attention. That’s bad? Often too much? Is that possible? Too much care and attention? Oh please, hubby, no more flowers. That is too much care and attention. No no, no foot rub tonight, darling. I don’t want too much care and attention. I know Grandma is calling for me again, but I don’t want to give her too much care and attention. Oh wait. This doesn’t apply to adults again.

“You hear sometimes people say, ‘Well don’t pay any attention to him. All he wants is attention.’ Well what else is there to want? And if we see a child who wants attention, why wouldn’t we give it to him? Why wouldn’t we meet these basic needs of affection, of mattering, of attention, of significance?” – Dr. Gordon Neufeld

And finally, we come to: “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. . . . We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.” I understand the “idea” behind the point he is making. Really. And I agree with this. A little bit. I agree that achievement should be more important than accolades, but our carrot-stick parenting kind of sets them up for this, doesn’t it? Pick up your toys, I’ll give you a sticker. Be good in the store and I’ll buy you a toy. We’re not teaching them to do right because it’s right, but because they’ll get something in return. So, naturally they continue to expect this.

I totally get that we need to prepare our kids for the world. I agree that the world will not cater to them, and they need to learn how to cope with failure and disappointments. Never letting them experience failure and disappointment isn’t doing them any favors. It’s the means of teaching them that is suggested in this article and those who commented on it that I have trouble with. We don’t want them to feel superior to everyone else, so rather than tell them that they’re not special, let’s show them they are valued and special in their own way and teach them to look for values and specialties in others. Simply saying “You’re not special” is just as harmful a message as “you’re superior.” And if we want them to value achievement above accolades, let’s stop dangling carrots in front of their noses from the time they can walk. Let’s acknowledge the effort rather than the outcome. Let’s teach the value of doing well for self-satisfaction and the value of doing good for goodness’ sake.

Final thought: My kids may not be the center of THE universe, but they’re definitely the center of mine and their dad’s, and we will make sure they know that. They are each very special, and I dare you to tell me otherwise. And if I may insert my faith in here (notice I didn’t say religion – that was on purpose), God knew them before He formed them in my womb, and before they were born, He set them apart. (Jeremiah 1:5). Let’s also not forget that children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. (Psalm 127:3). Oh, and “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:10).

So, um, who are you calling not special?


Becky Eanes is the founder of positive-parents.org and the author of The Newbie’s Guide to Positive Parenting and co-author of Positive Parenting in Action. She is the grateful mama of 2 little boys.

5 Responses to:
"Who Are You Calling “Not Special”?"

  1. Ashley   ashleympoland

    I’m torn, because there’s also this:

    “The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life is an achievement,” and he encourages graduates “to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.”

    That’s actually good advice. That’s saying that you shouldn’t strive to be The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was — but that you can do what you love and do your best at it. To the kids going out to colleges their parents chose and majors their parents want, that’s something they ought to hear.

    I don’t agree with the tone of the speech as it comes across, and I would argue that there’s a big difference between the kind of parenting that produces the Very Special Snowflake versus a child who knows s/he’s loved. But it’s possible it looks worse in writing than it came across as given.

  2. I have always believed that the world is a rough place and our children will discover this in their due course. Life teaches the most brutal lessons of all, why do some parents feel the need to accelerate that specific lesson or drive it in deep? Do they not realize that their child isn’t going to disagree with this fact? We need to be the shelter in the storm, teaching them to bend and flex, to bolster and shore up, give them confidence to live and be in a world that isn’t always working for them. I agree with you a hundred percent. Often times the only thing that gets us through the trials of life are those few special people who are our soft place to fall when someone knocks us down. I am sad for children who don’t have that.

  3. kate

    While I don’t agree with all of his word choices, I think understand his sentiment. It’s humbling to realize there are others on this planet that are equally as special. I believe everyone deserves the same rights, resources and treatment. A child is special, a homeless man is special, and someone living in poverty in a 3rd world country is special. Everyone is special but no one is superior. Mark 9:30-37 speaks about serving others, even those who make us uncomfortable, as they way to achieve “success.” My kids are loved. They are very special but not superior to anyone else.

  4. Tony Jackson

    I thoroughly enjoyed his speech. I think to critique certain parts of the extremely winded speech misses the overall point. I thought it was very refreshing that he gave that speech at a public HS graduation, of all places. As always, this is my opinion, as everyone is free to have theirs too.

  5. Well, I haven’t heard the whole speech myself (I don’t like listening to long speeches, and I couldn’t find a transcript to read), but I didn’t get that meaning at all from the bits quoted. I doubt very much indeed that he’s criticising the practice of making our kids feel they’re special *to us*, or giving them love and affection. I suspect he’s actually addressing issues like entitlement and the feeling that we’re special in some kind of cosmic sense and thus can expect good things to fall into our lap. And, if that is what he’s objecting to (and I do recognise that I’m guessing about this just as much as you are), then I agree with his objections to this viewpoint wholeheartedly.

    Yes, I’d love to believe I’m Special above and beyond others and that the world will somehow automatically recognise this and reward me for it. But I’d also love to have a million pounds, and that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea for me to go round acting as though it’s actually true. I’m a perfectly decent person with a lot to contribute to the world, but I’m not ‘special’ to anyone beyond those who are close to me, and nor should I expect to be. I have good things in my life due to a combination of hard work and blind luck, not due to ‘specialness’. And I think it’s totally reasonable to expect my children to grow up with that same philosophy. They’re special to me, to their father, to their extended family, to their friends… but, when it comes to the wider world, they’ll have to earn their own way both financially and metaphorically. And, if other people along the way want to pass on that message too, then great. Yes, that absolutely is the message I want to send.

    And the alternative to pampering and cosseting our children isn’t just to call them brats and tell them to suck it up. It’s to expect them to pull their weight and take on responsibilities to the world around them. Yes, I love being pampered once in a while – but I still have to get up early each morning to empty the dishwasher and get the kids ready for school, just like my husband gets his share of the work done. So, no, I don’t think that when McCullough objected to ‘pampering’ as a lifestyle that he was saying we should treat our children harshly instead. I think he was saying that we should have expectations of them and make sure they grow up knowing that they have duties to the world as well as rights. And I think that’s something we can all wholeheartedly agree with.

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