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You’re Not Special (but I want you to be)

Creative Common: Crystian Cruz

As a parent I’m proud of my kids and their accomplishments.

I’ve got the medals and the chest to prove it – literally.

In our basement, there’s a chest that’s bulging with every art class drawing, report card, unit test, medal of achievement, every certificate, team ribbon, participation parchment and group trophy from our kids’ endeavors to date.

They’ve accomplished a lot and  I’m proud of that.

I brag about them. I’m a dad, that’s my job.

But should it be that way? Do they deserve that praise?

That’s when I started thinking about the hoopla over the recent “You’re Not Special” speech delivered by  high school English teacher David McCullough, Jr. to graduates at Wellesley High School last week.

I’ve linked to his speech below, but the entire 12 minute address  can be summed up in the final :30 seconds where he says the following:

“…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….”

There was a national outcry against and resonance for this teacher who had the audacity to speak the truth – simply and clearly.

I agreed with virtually every point McCullough eloquently made.

But then I ran into my internal buzzsaw of intellectual honesty again – curse you cognitive dissonance!

The problem I have with what McCullough said is that as a parent, I really and deeply WANT my children to be special. I want them to excel at everything and have everything they put their hand to prosper.

While that might be a tad unrealistic for every parent, it’s certainly not unexpected for a parent to feel that way.

What McCoullough reminded me of was the fact that my kids are more than a portfolio of papers; skein of skills and collection of accomplishments. That’s not why I love them.

I love them for who they are, not for what they do.

That’s the real job of the parent – to love on our kids, not merely brag on them.

Question: Do we do too much or too little worrying about the self-esteem of kids in this country?



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  1. I don’t think that self esteem building opportunities should be measured in quantity but rather in quality. My children (now ages 22, 18 and 11) are praised for real, tangible, quality acts and actions. I do not praise every minute thing that they do. Nor do I give kudos for those things that I consider to be common place responsibilities such as chores, cleaning up after themselves, earning acceptable grades in school etc.

    I EXPECT my children to be good citizens. I EXPECT them to complete chores. I EXPECT them to do their best in school. Accolades are given for EXCEPTIONAL acts and actions such as earning higher grades through extra studying, going above and beyond their expected chore list.

    Of course I thank my children for jobs completed and always tell them when a job is well done but for mercy’s sake we don’t go out for ice cream just because Lindz cleaned the litter box extra well.

    Over-praising a child makes it mundane. I can tell you right now EVERY word of praise that my grandfather ever gave me. Why? Because when those words came, they meant something. I knew I had earned something besides words. I had earned his appreciation and maybe even a little of his respect.

    If you are want to build a child’s self esteem, think quality not quantity.

  2. I, too, loved McCullough’s speech. And, here’s the way I think we can and should treat our kids.
    We are special. We need to do our best- and be recognized for doing so. But, we must recognize that there are 8 billion other folks on this earth, who are special in their own ways. Being special does not mean one is better than another- even though we wish it did (and we may even be so for one instant in time)- it means we have to help each other person reach their specialness. And, when we do that, the one being that counts, the Supreme Being, knows we’ve done so- and nothing else matters.

  3. Great post, and great thought.

  4. my kid is only 11 days old, but I haven’t once worried about if her self esteem will be high…I just want her to grow up to know Jesus and esteem Him…if she does that, I’ll be happy dad

  5. Rob Swanson says:

    As home-school parents, we’ve tried to imbue our kids not with the idea that they are special, but the must strive to be special. That through the Bible and our own teaching, they have a godly example to pursue.

    Also as a home-school parent, I can attest that to this teacher, my students ARE special. I have insights into my kids that an outside teacher doesn’t. Whether they’ll excel in the workplace, I don’t know (though I suspect they will), but as individuals before God, they are each unique and very special and with that, have a responsibility to live up to it.

    We’ve tried to give our kids God-esteem with a right understanding of who they are in Him.

    When I was a missionary to Native Canadian tribes, however, there was a self-loathing among the children that broke my heart. For them, they would never have to strive to be special because the government gave them everything. Teaching them their value in God was the most difficult ministry I’ve ever worked.

  6. I think there is way too much time spent as a collective worrying about self-esteem in kids. I want to encourage them in everything, but the more I emphasize their self-esteem, the more attention I think I bring to it. I think I somehow cause their self-esteem more harm than if I just don’t focus on it.

  7. In times of great (to quote you Tor) cognitive dissonance, I turn to great minds for clear thinking and so I ask, “What would Shirley McClain say?”

    She would say that we are getting hung up on all of this because in (her) reality, we are all god. Kinda like everyone getting to be the boss. So go ahead and try that tomorrow when you are at work–everyone gets promoted to boss status and see what happens.

    Dig it! Everyone is special. You are special, I am special, the guy over there is special and so therefore the word means everything.

    A funny little thing about language and epistomology, is that a word that means everything means nothing. So if everyone is god/special/punctual/insert-descriptor-here then the word loses all consequence.

    And it is really a shame because when the drop out deadbeat dad is special and so is the guy who invents a life saving surgery it leaves us in a place where no matter what your best leaves no significant trace of meaning.

    I liked the teacher’s speech. I do not think that he is prescribing a free license to condescend, rather he is pointing back to the true foundations of justice; wherein equal things are treated equally and unequal things are treated unequally. Without that there would not be any basis for merit or demerit.

    People need to know that not everyone gets to play for the Yankees, nor command a Space Shuttle mission or lead a life worth living so that when he/she dies the Father says, “Well done.” But, we can all endeavor to do those things, and in the final accounting it does make a difference in eternity.

    “Weddings do better than the Baltimore Oriels.” –Classic!

  8. What a great post and discussion/ I strive to make sure that my kids know I love them simply for who they are, and the unique little beings God created each of them to be. I do believe we are all equal — but we’re also all special in different ways with different talents, gifts, and purposes for our lives. We can praise children’s “specialness” while instilling in them that selfless perspective that we are each created special so that we can serve those around us in a big way.

    Society in some areas has gone to such an extreme of not wanting to damage self-esteem that instead we’ve encouraged a generation of self-absorbed, self-centered people who believe they’re the exception to every rule and even when they’re wrong or not putting any effort into something, they’re coddled and rewarded instead of corrected and challenged to keep doing better and growing. That’s not the kind of “special” I want my kids to grow up believing they are.

  9. “curse you cognitive dissonance!” That is a fantastic phrase ;-)>
    As for self esteem, I think we may inoculating our kids against the need for a savior. “If I’m that good then why do I need Jesus?” Good post

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