Should We Stop Telling Our Kids That They’re Special?
Wellesley High School families who’d come to graduation last week expecting a warm bath of clichés were treated to a bracing shower from David McCullough, Jr., instead. “You’re not special, you are not exceptional,” the English teacher stated with unexpected bluntness. “You have been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, and bubble-wrapped, feted and fawned over.” McCullough’s straight talk was aimed at Americans’ “love of accolades more than genuine achievement” and the cheapening effect of making everything special. Many families apparently found McCullough’s reality check refreshing and inspirational; his speech quickly made the usual Youtube rounds.
But before we get too carried away blaming helicopter parents for sheltering teens, it’s worth recalling the merits of being special and why our society made such a shift in the first place.
To be sure, there’s plenty of confirmatory evidence that the self-esteem train has derailed: grade inflation and bloated “honors” classes; cheating and sports scandals; resume padding and college consulting mills. Enterprising families can game the system with trumped up medical diagnoses that yield performance enhancing drugs and extended time on standardized tests. Combined with a decline in basic summer job skills, McCullough had a point in wondering what’s so “special” about these privileged, ego-involved students.