Thursday, August 9, 2012

"you are not special."

Back in June, a high school commencement speech given at Wellesley High School by teacher David McCullough, Jr. (yes, son of that David McCullough, Sr.) went viral. Though he later said that his “ intention was a little hyperbolic drollness to get their attention,” educators and adults everywhere were applauding McCullough’s blunt parting words to the graduating class.

The central message of the speech was that regardless of what you have been told and led to believe, you are not special.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have…
…But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.


So think about this: 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.


You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.

Can I confess to you that as I was reading this I was pumping my fist in the air and cheering? Because I totally was. My colleagues and I joked about slipping the transcript of the speech into our students’ report cards. Because I feel like this is a message that is so important, even to 5 and 6 year-olds, and more importantly, to their parents.

I just completed my tenth year of teaching. And in that decade, I’ve literally taught hundreds of students and interacted with hundreds of parents. That doesn’t make me an expert by any means, but it does give me a glimpse into the culture of parenting as it has shifted and changed even over the last ten years.

If I’m going to take a cue from David McCullough, Jr. and be blunt, I’ll say this: generally speaking, with every year, I’ve noticed that kids are becoming brattier and feeling more entitled (oh, the stories I could tell…) because parents, generally speaking, have come to coddle them more and more. And present company (I’m talking about me!) is definitely *not* excluded.

It’s almost as if the first of the “everybody gets a trophy” generation is now raising kids and the philosophy has changed to “yes, everybody gets a trophy, but my child gets the biggest trophy!” Of course, I’m exaggerating quite a bit and this is a gross generalization, but it’s been really interesting to see the reactions I have gotten from parents when approaching them about different subjects regarding their children.

When I was little, if I *ever* came home with a note from the teacher that suggested even a hint at not being perfectly well behaved, or heaven forbid, had a teacher ever called my parents at work, you can bet your bottom dollar I would have been in deeeeeep doodoo. And it was pretty much the same for all of my friends and their parents.

Nowadays, it’s almost as though any time a child is told he is less than perfect, his parents come rushing up ready to share any number of excuses to point fingers at anyone or anywhere else but back at their child. Again, I’m exaggerating, and I’m not saying that a teacher’s word (or anyone else’s, for that matter) regarding your child should be the end all be all. But it just seems that much more so than when we were kids, a child’s behavior or attitude is excused away or given into, no matter how bad it is. On top of that, it seems that children are also rewarded more than ever. Not only do we reward them for improving, or for effort, but we reward them just for showing up! Or for being nice! Or, even worse, we bribe them with rewards to do basic tasks! (Seriously, the stories I could share…) And, not to mention all of the goodness modern inventions and technology bring us in helping cater to our children’s interests, almost to the point of making everything! fun! all! the! time! for our little ones.

As I said, our little rodeo of a family is hardly excluded from this kind of parenting. I’d like to say we are able to take a more objective point of view, but the truth is, if an incident arises between Choi Boy and another child or if he does something less than desirable all on his own, I certainly make him apologize, but inwardly, I’m often rationalizing his actions or thinking of excuses as to why he did what he did. And though we try reeeeeally hard not to give extrinsic rewards and instead try to play up intrinsic rewards, if I’m totally honest, we’ve certainly fallen into our share of bribes here and there. (Not our proudest parenting moments. Nope.) And, gosh darn it, I love a good project or activity that I can center around CB!

At the end of the day, in so many ways, our children are the centers of our universe. They are, in addition to our SOs, the most precious and important people in our lives.

But I can’t help but think that making excuses for them or rewarding them for little things or making them feel as though they are the center of the universe is creating the culture of “special-ness” that McCullough warns against. In fact, one of my biggest worries in raising CB is that he will grow up thinking he is THE MAN (The grandparents are not helping play this down. For reals, yo.) and that he may be perceived by others as a brat.

We try really hard to balance the love and affection we shower CB with along with consistent discipline so he learns to be respectful and understand that he cannot and will not always get what he wants, and that the world will not make exceptions for him . We also want him to know that he will not always be the best and that it’s okay to fail as long as you learn from that failure. We want him to not always be looking out for number 1, but to be caring and kind and willing and wanting to serve others. But we also want him to be confident and have a healthy dose of self-esteem and live up to his potential, whatever it may be.

In short, we want CB to know and do exactly what McCullough encourages at the end of his speech:

Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion-and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.
Because everyone is.

Ain’t that the truth? So, I guess my question is what does raising a child to do and understanding that truth look like in practicality? How does one raise a child to be selfless and compassionate while also helping him feel loved and, well, special? How do you balance developing a healthy self-esteem without over inflating your child and giving him a sense of entitlement?

How do you help your child understand that he is not special, when in your eyes, in so many ways, he really is?


  1. I was also doing the fist pump. I turned out ok and did not win every medal out there. In fact- this helps one figure out exactly what they are good in and what they are not. I'm sure in little ways parents do give the "you're special" when it is most needed. ;-)

  2. Great post! I'm planning on raising E like I was raised. I can't tell you how many times I heard the phrase "life isn't fair. Get over it." (And may have already said it to E a time of two!) And it served me very well later in life. We were not raisd to be entitled and like you, we would lave been in BIG trouble had the teacher sent a letter home or called. Yet, I always knew I was special--to my parents, not the whole world. We spent 10 years living next door to "those parents" and it was a very eye opening experience. Consequently their daughter is one of the most annoying people I've ever met and at 11 she has zero coping skills for not getting what she wants. It's quite sad actually. I know parenting is hard and even a year in there have been times when I want to say yes, just to keep peace, but I keep telling myself that I don't want to raise that kid that nobody can stand to be around.

    1. yup, i totally think that's the distinction -- that kids need to know that they are special to their parents, but *not* to the whole world!

  3. "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it." I think that is exactly what you are saying. You are absolutely on target with your comments. Saddest of all, many parents believe teachers fail to do the job that has been given to parents by God Almighty. This is a generation of "if it doesn't suit me, what I want to do, or what fits my schedule, then I will not do it." It makes for terrible parenting and it makes for poor end results. I hope your blog is read by lots and lots of people and I hope they "get" the message. Life is rarely fair. It is a bitter lesson, but one we all have to learn.
    Thank you for sharing.

  4. Such a great speech. I've been teaching high school for ten years now and can corroborate your observations. I could probably write an essay in response to this post, but it'll probably just increase my blood pressure, so I'll just say that yes, we need to see the pendulum swing back toward some of the values we once held regarding making our kids accountable. Our school board human resources office said they've started receiving phone calls from parents asking why the board hasn't hired their children...yes, their children who have graduated university! When do parents let go and let their children live their own lives??

    1. OH MY GOSH. i've heard similar stories from HR people and that is just CRAZY!!! i'm sure it's even worse in high school!

  5. I agree with every.single.statement. My husband and I have this exact conversation from time to time. Although we don’t have children of our own yet, this is exactly how we intend to raise them. I don’t have any suggestions for you but I hope to read some great comments! I hope you don’t mind but I’m definitely going to share this post!

  6. Oh man... I could write an essay in response to this. I will say that this concern influences a lot of our decisions. We intentionally chose the daycare that had the non-coddlers/ "we believe in time outs" teachers. Yes, they would lay down their lives for my kid, but big crocodile tears after intentionally doing something naughty still gets you on the time out bench, with a note being written to Mama. (Tearing books never happened again) And Taekwondo has been a good influence too, although I almost flipped out when Spencer did his theatrics for the first part of the class, then went in and took the test for a stripe, and passed with flying colors. ;-) And here, we just make sure to tell S when we are proud of him as well as when we are disappointed in him. Some weeks I feel like it's the latter more than the former, so I guess I'm ok?! ;-)

  7. And I should have clarified that the reason we tell him both our disappointments as well as when we are proud of achievements is so that the achievements mean more. Hopefully you read between the lines there!

    1. of course! i totally understood what you meant, silly :) and yes, i totally think kids need to know when they are in the wrong and have logical consequences that help them understand why they were wrong and why they shouldn't do it again. and on the flip side, they need to know when they've done something that makes *them* proud so they gain from their own intrinsic reward.

      p.s. the crocodile tears kill me. cb could win an oscar. fo sho.

  8. I love this and have not heard. Thanks for educating me.

    As you know and stated in this post (so tactful and eloquently, I might add!), being in education is so different now.

    I could go on and on, but looks like I'd be preaching to the choir.

    I loved this post, as it reminded me of some important values I want to instill in Evan as he grows.

    Thanks, friend!

  9. I always love to hear your perspective as a kindergarten teacher (and I will be ALL EARS this kindergarten year, believe me). Totally, totally agree with you; and man, is it hard to put in practice some days.

  10. This is fascinating. I couldn't agree more. I am scared for society in general knowing that so many of the kids who have been brought up to feel entitled and super special will one day be in charge. Oy! I sure hope I don't do this with my kids. Thanks for the reminder and for your perspective. I really enjoyed (and agreed with) what you wrote.

  11. Must go find this speech - I somehow missed this!


why, hello there! do you have something to say? 'cause i'd so love to hear it!