In 2014, a teacher called David McCullough made a commencement speech that went viral and led to a Ted Talk and a parenting book. It is called, “You Are Not Special’ and is a brilliant discussion about the perils of entitlement, privilege, helicoptering and striving for (illusory) perfection — a must-read for any parent.
It’s definitely worth dusting off in the context of parenting through the pandemic. The message sounds harsh but is extremely relevant and also encouraging. It’s this: The sense of specialness that we, as modern parents communicate to our children, is actually a product of privilege and entitlement. By helicoptering kids, and making them feel that life owes them something, by giving everyone a trophy, by protecting children from failure and disappointment, we risk setting them up for exactly that — a life that will almost certainly fall short of their inflated expectations.
However, by acknowledging that we are not “special” and accepting our fundamental doubts, insecurities, fallibility and imperfection, we are setting our children on course for success. Success will look like confidence, resilience, humility, stamina and empathy. The ingredients for a good life.
Of course our children are special — to us! Within our families, our children must be special, and know how much they’re loved. Although perhaps not quite so special that they don’t have to make their beds, or put their plates into the dishwasher.
However, if we send our children into the world thinking that they need to be made to feel special by those around them, and, worse yet, that their psychological well being actually depends on the maintenance of a certain level of specialness, they are heading for rough seas.
We can all agree that we all have experienced loss this past year, and that we continue to do so. It’s really painful to think about all the things we’re missing out on — vacations, celebrations, social interactions, seeing family. Not to mention stable employment and regular paychecks. This is very hard for us all.
And it’s perhaps especially discomforting for parents to think of their kids missing out on the expected elements of school life — attending regular in-person classes, playing sports, rites of passage like homecoming, the high school musical and so many other things they’ve looked forward to and will now — if they are seniors — not experience.
So, having acknowledged this legitimate loss, and the consequent sadness, what can we do to rectify it? What is the upside?
It’s this. By having learned the hard way in their youth, that we’ve all been through a life-changing, global event, our kids are getting some tough, but salutary lessons. Things won’t always work out as planned. There will be difficulties. But they will survive, and can even flourish, and they are part of a much larger experience in which there are many who are worse off, and we must encourage them to remember that.
We can think of how we approach this pandemic in two ways.
We can be so “special” that we ignore collective responsibility, and continue to socialize freely, or not wear a mask because we ourselves are healthy and unlikely to become seriously ill and besides, we “need” to feel normal as much as we can, and to see our friends because life is so hard right now.
Never mind that by living like this, we might well pass on the virus to someone we will never know, and they may pass it on to someone else we will never know, and they may end up being seriously ill, have long-term health implications, or even die. But we won’t know them. And the people who go through this probably have pre-existing health conditions anyway or are just old, (though, by the way, that doesn’t make it ok, or dismissable for them to suffer).
Or we could flip our mindset and model a life of collective responsibility. Where we all take one for the team, and do the difficult, uncomfortable things, wearing a mask, avoiding gatherings, knowing that others in our community face more risk and have it worse.
That’s a life in which we get this pandemic over and done with by sucking it up, and using our privilege, and advantages to be creative in compensating ourselves for our legitimate losses, determined in finding ways to support our mental health needs, imaginative in re-inventing our missed rites of passage and — especially — dogged in supporting those who are suffering more than ourselves.
That looks pretty special to us.