Everyone's Special

Recently a coworker commented on her younger sibling’s graduation ceremony from grade eight to grade nine. Naturally I said something cynical and wry like “oh you big kidder – they don’t have grad ceremonies between those grades, how gullible do you think I am?” knowing full well that in this day and age, of course they do.

And I was reminded of that scene from my favourite superhero movie, The Incredibles, where Mr Incredible is chided by his wife (Elastigirl if you recall) for not attending his kid’s similar grad from 2 single-digit grades. Part of his response was “they keep coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity.” A recurring theme in the film is that when everyone’s special, no one is.

And then I read the Tyee ‘review’ of Kung Fu Panda. Like so many computer animated films, this is a movie I want to like, but I’m pretty sure I won’t. That’s neither here nor there for the topic of this post. The important bit from the article is this:

In a recent article in The New Statesman entitled “The Kindergarchy: Every child a dauphin,” Joseph Epstein makes the argument that convincing children that they’re great often has the opposite effect.

Writes Epstein: “The consequences of so many years of endlessly attentive childrearing in young people can also be witnessed in many among them who act as if certain that they are deserving of the interest of the rest of us; they come off as very knowing. Lots of their conversation turns out to be chiefly about themselves, and much of it feels as if it is formulated to impress some dean of admissions with how very extraordinary they are.

Despite all the effort that has been put into shaping these kids, things, somehow, don’t seem quite to have worked out. Who would have thought that so much love in the home would result in such far from lovable children? But then, come to think of it, apart from their parents, who would have thought otherwise?”

Although Epstein’s rant has little too much “When I was your age…,” he has a point. You can see it reflected in a film like Kung Fu Panda, where the titular hero, having nothing but innate, albeit unrecognized genius, triumphs, while others of far greater ability and training fail. I hear similar stuff when my mother complains about her creative writing students who never bothered to learn the basic (boring) craft of writing, but nonetheless want to be commended for their natural and instinctive genius.

I agree with this. It seems to me that the Sesame Street mantra of You Are Special can easily be twisted into a license for laziness and complacency. That any potential is there seems to be enough for some, why bother to try to fulfill it?

5 Replies to “Everyone's Special”

  1. In general I agree, though here is something the writer of that excerpt seems to not have acknowledged: the problem isn’t paying attention to your kids. Kids need that, the more the better as a general rule of thumb. Its the kind of attention that the research tells us matters. What kids don’t need – and what I think he’s saying they get – is to be constantly complimented, told how great they are, dragged to baby-school or Little Einstein viewings, not allowed to experience failure or loss or pain or sadness because the parent protects them from it, encouraged to be self centred through constant praise that is not connected to actual accomplishment or effort, etc.

    Imagine a parent who spends a lot of time with their kid, just being there, encouraging the kid to try, showing them new thing to learn, sitting back and letting the kid experiment and fail, and learn throughout the process. Praise is used much less than encouragement – encouragement to try new things, encouragement to make an effort even when the task is hard, encouragement to keep going when there are failures. Kids can be loved and attended to without utterly spoiling them – there is nothing inherent in attention that ruins kids. It’s what you do with your attention.

    Having said that… it seems there is a huge trend in over-praising kids, saying everything they do is amazing and wonderful, etc., as your post says. The real tragedy of this is you end up with kids who are self centred and feel entitled to everything coming easily – but this covers a fragile self esteem. (Turns out you can’t improve someone’s self esteem just by telling them how great they are. The only thing baseless praise feeds is their narcissism.) These are kids who are afraid to try anything they might fail at (often becoming enraged when things don’t go their way immediately), don’t understand the connection between effort and outcome, and are surprisingly emotionally vulnerable under the obnoxiousness. It’s a terrible thing to do to a kid.

  2. I was all fired up to write something, but jess has said everything that I wanted to say, succinctly and without swearing.

    And I say this as someone who received constant and frequently baseless praise while I was growing up, knew the difference and yet still get pissed of when my genius isn’t recognized. Or when I have to you know, put effort into something to succeed. Weird, huh?

  3. Totally with you (and Jess) on this — kids should be encouraged to excel, not be told that they’re wonderful and special just-the-way-they-are.

    This isn’t a new problem — the disenfranchisment of being an adult male raised in such an environment is one of the themes of Fight Club!

    We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

    I wish I’d been pushed a little more and praised a little less when I was growing up. I was a pretty bright kid, so school wasn’t difficult, and without a push I didn’t really gain strong work habits because I did well without them.

  4. So you’re telling me my Mom LIED!

    Hey, I EARNED those ribbons just for turning up on sports day.

    Do you think that standing around for hours and joking with your friends and then throwing a shot-put ONCE was EASY???

    Job was piker compared to me!! You’re all just jealous ‘cuz I’m so great…

  5. Jess summed things up nicely. I always hated awards for the sake of awards. The biggest scam in junior high (in my opinion) was the Perfect Attendence Award. Please, an award for showing up every day at school regardless if you were sick and got everyone else sick? How sad.

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