08/07/2014 04:36 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2014

The Word We Don't Want our Kids to Rely On

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I was special for a long time when I was a child. I was special because of my blonde hair and blue eyes. I was special because I looked like Great-Grandma Stella. Because my Grandma told me that I was a unique gift from God. I was special because I was a Canadian girl in an American school. Because I won the writing contest. I was also special because I was hearing impaired.

I could go on. It was a lot of special.

But when I thought about it, everyone else was special too. For various reasons, everyone I knew would get plunked with the "special" label. And I wasn't the only 4th grader to stop and say, "Hey wait a minute, which one of us is actually the special one here?" After all, isn't being special supposed to mean you offer up some unique attribute? We can't ALL be special, right?

As I got older, I was special for new reasons. The fact that I liked to write. My struggles with mental illness. Various interests and talents that half a million other people shared too. I was special for what people told me was fearlessness and determination. Those people were my friends, my family, the odd professor or employer.

By that point, I had stopped investing in the hopes that I was actually special. I quickly learned that what people meant to say was not that I possessed some uniqueness that would propel me into the world with a slew of advantages over the "unspecial" minions around me -- but that I was special to them.

We tell our kids and teenagers all the time that they are special. We do. We tell them they are unique and we work to boost their self-esteem. We want them to be propelled into the world thinking they have advantages over others because of who they are. But what are the downfalls? Do our kids think they are... too unique? Too special? Worthy over others? Entitled over others? When we tell our youth they are special, are we specifying what it is we mean?

We tell our children they can do anything, be anything and accomplish anything. Do we prepare them for what happens when they fail? Because walking into the big bad world with the idea of superiority and the complete confidence of those behind you who said "you're special, you can do anything," we may be forgetting to add that 'you can do anything' doesn't mean that you are better than everyone else. Instead, it means I see in you the ability to work hard to accomplish what you want to. Not, "your endless talent will carry you."

Because in the real world, it won't. There are 20 other people just as talented up for the same job. In the real world, you can't put 'special' on your resume, or use it in self-defense. In the real world, if the only thing you were ever told was that you are special and unique, you are screwed. Because everyone and their uncle is also 'special and unique.'

What should we tell our kids?

Help your kids hone their own self confidence naturally. Allow the natural consequences of hard work and talent to pay off. They are getting an A in math because they work hard, and they are learning because they are paying attention in school. They are learning to be very good at math. Their teacher chose their drawing for the wall at school because they worked hard on that drawing and it seems they have a talent for art when they put forth an effort.

In other words, emphasizing the work our kids do and the effort and care they put to something is what teaches them that they can accomplish things. "Special,'"and "talent" implies they don't have to work for things, that things should come naturally. And when things don't come naturally, our kids are awfully confused. What happens when they don't do well on that math test? When they get to college, and their art isn't on the wall because everyone's art is THAT good, they are at a loss.

We cannot tell our youth "you are unique, and others are not. You hold the advantage." We can tell them they are special to us, that every person is unique in their own ways, but that many people share similar attributes and talents. And that what truly pays off is passion, hard work and perseverance. Our kids are going to fail. Some things will truly not be their game, and they won't always win at the things that are. If what they hold to be true is that they are special, every loss will be personal. Every loss will be a blow to what they believed was the existence of some untouchable force within them. Confidence is not built by weakening those around our kids and making comparisons, nor is it built by separating them from others on a pedestal. Instead, it is built by sharing our own belief in their passions and efforts with them and allowing our kids to experience the effects of their efforts for themselves.