I grew up in a household that balanced praise with honest critique. I believed that my strengths were highlighted and my limitations diminished. While I wasn’t athletic, I was encouraged to dance. While I couldn’t hold a tune, I was told that I was funny. While not every grade on every test was perfect, I was told that I was smart and savvy. I was also reminded, as a teenager, by my loving and caring mother, that I was “replaceable.” This was her version of the David McCullough, Jr. speech, and it was given to me when I felt that my mere presence would affect world events. If I missed a day of school, how would the teachers continue on without me? If I called in sick for work, who would be able to stand behind the cash register at the card shop? And yet, children at my school still got educated even if I wasn’t there, and commuters were still be able to buy gum and newspapers regardless of whether or not I had the flu. Life went on, and I (slowly but surely) learned that while I might have felt important, I was just one person, “special” and replaceable. I was lucky.
However, for some children, their childhoods are not spent listening to parents build them up, highlight their strengths, and diminish their limitations. Some children, due to myriad factors, hear too few words of praise, or none at all, or not enough to make them feel like they can make a meaningful contribution to society. Regardless of a child’s social location, some children do not feel special. Some children may perceive themselves or be perceived by others as different, ugly, stupid, worthless, directionless, or hopeless. While some children are congratulated for every goal, every A on a test, and every act of kindness, other children are neglected, abused, bullied or “thrown away.” In this moment of reflection on helicopter parents and their special children, we need to take a step back and remember the volume of children who need more than praise, but real advocacy and actions. I hope that the intent of McCullough’s wise words don’t get lost in the middle class shuffle. We are surrounded not only by a young cohort who may feel special, but by many youth who do not.
This post was written in response to ” Should We Stop Telling Our Kids That They’re Special? ” an article in TIME Magazine.
Emily Mann is an Associate Academic Specialist in the Human Services Program at Northeastern University. She received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the State University of New York at Geneseo, a Master’s of Science in Social Work, and a Ph.D. in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied the effects of early intervention on delinquency prevention. Dr. Mann spent two years as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Clinical Research Training Program (CRTP) at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and was also a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow. Dr. Mann’s teaching and research focuses on educational interventions and academic and social functioning.