I have not stopped thinking about this amazing Wellesley High School graduation speech since I saw it yesterday, thanks to Jen Singer. In it, brilliant English teacher David McCullough cautions his students, "you are not special."
I admit when I first heard the line, I bristled a bit. Aren't those fightin' words for any doting parent? Who among us doesn't want our child to be special?
However if you watch the speech (it's worth your 12 minutes, I promise) it's clear there's a distinction between a child who is special to me, and a child who is special in all the world and thus, deserving of its myriad rewards.
In other words, entitled.
McCullough reminds us that that 37,000 high schools graduating in the country, means 37,000 valedictorians and 37,000 class presidents. He beautifully asserts that "if everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless."And I think therein lies the lesson that many in my generation of parents is hoping to teach, in part to distance ourselves from the previous generation of overcoddling parents.
Or maybe it's not so much previous. Kristen just this week confessed to me that she pulled her kids out of their team awards dinner because even the suckiest teams were going to get something shiny; not the lesson she and her husband want to teach. She was the only parent in the league who evidently felt this way.
Slowly back away from the trophies, losers, You'll thank me later.
You already know the phenomenon is well-documented. From the parents of 9 year-olds who don't think the rules at summer camp apply to their children, to the mother who calls an employer on behalf of her adult son.
All of which of course leads to the new generation of adults who are "unaccustomed to being denied."
Not that every Millennial falls into this trap, of course. (And I'm trying so hard not to be the old farty lady who's like hey you kids, get off my lawn and go back to your sexting!) But I can tell you as a professional, I have seen some of the "special" kids coming out of college today. The kids who interview and make sure to tell you just what they will and will not do. (Oh, uh...okay. We'll get right on that for you.) Or the the summer interns who earn highly coveted positions then look so bored in the senior level meetings they're invited to, they practically fall asleep. In fact, I had an intern like this years ago. I was wildly impressed with his persistence; he called me every week for months until I offered him the internship.
Then, once he had it, he did nothing.
I spoke with him multiple times about his lack of work ethic, his bad attitude, the fact if he failed at one project it was his job to rip it up, get back to that computer and start over until he nails it, dammit. He never did. Mostly, he took really long lunches.
I nearly died when he emailed me months later to tell me how much he enjoyed the summer with us and to ask for a recommendation. I think in some twisted, warped, completely wackadoo way, in his mind, he deserved it. Simply because he was there. And being there was confirmation of his specialness. His entitlement.
So perhaps the most astute line in the entire commencement speech, the one that spoke to me the most was, "We've come to love accolades more than achievement."
How true it is.
Not that there's anything wrong with accolades, gob knows. It's a terrific feeling to know you've done something that someone else admires. But man, it has to be earned, doesn't it? So I truly want to make sure I'm raising kids who are proud of what they've done-and not simply what someone has said to them about what they've done.
What's really disconcerting is that it's not just kids proceeding like this. It's among us. In our culture. It's the entire reality TV celebrity culture (which I am guilty of supporting, big time.) And, yeah I'll say it -- it's in the blogger space. Think about the race to game the system for a higher klout score, rather than developing an authentically involved community. The buying of Twitter followers and fans, or alleged trading in backlinks to create a facade of popularity. Shamelessly plagiarizing blog posts, then basking in the bullshit glow of all the "wow, you are AWESOME for writing this!" comments beneath them.
Is this what we want for our own kids? Man, I hope not.
Which is why I don't think that that wonderful speech was just aimed at the graduating seniors. I think it was very much aimed at their parents.
And, probably, at us.
I want my kids to know I believe in them. I want them to know I'm proud of them when they do something to be proud of. And I want them to know I love them, every single moment of every day and without condition.
But maybe I need to make extra sure that they know while they're always special to me, (and argh, it's hard to say this) they are not special. Or as McCullough plainly put it,"Astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center. Therefore you cannot be it."
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