Should We Tell Our Children They Are Special?

Have you heard about the commencement speech given by David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, in which he told the graduating seniors “you are not special”? Rather than deliver the expected “go out and conquer the world” graduation speech, the teacher surprised the gathered body with comments like:

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.

The teacher went on to encourage the students to find and follow their passions rather than believe the hype of how great they already are. The speech has gone viral, with some people upset with the harshness of the message, and others applauding the teacher’s honesty. What do you think? Do parents of color, who want to do all we can to encourage our children to have a healthy self-esteem as they encounter many messages in the media and the world which can undermine it, tend to take this kind of commentary with a grain of salt? And should we?

On her CNN program “Starting Point”, Soledad O’Brien discussed this speech with a roundtable of commentators including Dr. Steve Perry, founder and Principal of Capital Prep Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut, and the chief CNN contributor on issues relating to education. During this discussion, found here, Perry said about the speech, “I didn’t like it. I loved it”. Perry believes that rather than over praise their children, parents should hold them to a high standards, but teach them that they need to understand that the goal of working hard is to change and enrich lives (their own and others). Panelist Roland Martin agreed, noting, “We have folks walking around with an attitude, we’re the best. You have to get there. You have to earn something…Colleges always say these are our graduates. Thurgood Marshall, Dr. King. Yes, but they got there after they graduated.”

LZ Granderson, a senior ESPN magazine and on-line columnist who also writes for CNN.com, agrees that the speech was uplifting. In his column called “Kid, You are Not Special”, found here, he writes of telling his son that his middle school band performance was terrible “because I don’t want my son to grow up to be a loser.” He explains,

I don’t claim to know everything about parenting, but I do know parents do their children a disservice by constantly sugarcoating their shortcomings to protect their feelings. I can’t think of a more surefire way to raise a loser than not allowing a child to learn what it really takes to be a winner.

Check out the transcript of the “You Are Not Special” speech so you can form your own opinion. And then share it with us! What do you think? Was this an important wake-up call that we should share with our children?

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