Who Are You Calling “Not Special”?
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?
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?