No, Our Children Are Not All Special. And That's OK

Health & Wellness on 06.10.12
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We want our children to believe they can change the world. She can be the next president. He can cure cancer. They can bring peace to the Middle East.

It's important to encourage them, to make them believe they are capable of anything. But where is the line drawn?

A teacher in Wellesley, Mass., surprised his students - and probably their parents and a few fellow teachers - by giving a commencement speech in which he told them they were not special.

Some people are praising David McCullough Jr.; others are villifying him.

Thing is, he's right.

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

As a mom, I struggle with this every day. When my boys get a good grade, I praise them. "You're so smart!" I tell them. But I try to remember to tell them, also, "And you worked really hard, and your grades reflect that."

They are smart little boys. But if I allowed them to think that being smart was enough, I wouldn't be doing my job as a parent.

Because being smart isn't enough.

Showing up isn't enough.

Just being isn't enough.

You have to work hard to succeed. Is luck involved? Sure. A great idea, hard work and bad timing can mean failure. While a mediocre idea, not a lot of work and perfect timing can mean success. But what happens more than either is a great idea, hard work and timing that isn't bad.

Is it possible for any given person to be special? Of course. And McCullough recognizes that.

The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube.

While I might argue that watching parrots rollerskate on YouTube might be part of the pursuit of happiness (and without people wanting to do that, would YouTube ever have succeeded? I think not), he's right.

Failure is an important part of achievement. If you've never failed, how do you know when you've succeeded? If you always "succeed," how do you know when you've succeeded at something important?

As we raise our little ones, it's hard to look at them and not see how special they are. They are special to us - as well they should be. But that doesn't mean they will do special things. It is incumbent upon us to push them to succeed.

We need to hug them when they've failed and not say, "You did great!" but say, "We love you. And you'll get 'em next time!"

We need to encourage our children to believe they can achieve anything and everything. But not to expect they will without effort.

There have been several studies over recent years that show American students are more confident in their math abilities than students in other nations. That would be nice and all, if it weren't for the fact that the less-confident students scored higher on math assessments.

When you don't believe you're the best, you try harder to become the best.

It's the American Dream: Anyone can become rich, become famous, become president. But that Dream doesn't come with a guarantee. And the Dream also comes with a caveat: Work your butt off and this could happen. It won't happen if you're watching those parakeet videos.

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Creative Commons photo by Chris Keating on Flickr.