David McCullough Jr., a Wellesly High School English teacher made headlines last week for the speech he delivered at the school's commencement in Wellesly, Mass. “You’re not special, you are not exceptional,” he stated with unexpected bluntness. “You have been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted and bubble-wrapped, feted and fawned over.”
McCullough's straight talk about the "cheapening effect of making everything special," wrote Erika Christkis for Time magazine, resonated with many parents.
But Christkis, a Harvard College administrator, warns parents and teachers to recall the merits of being special and why society made this shift in the first place. Before the everyone-is-special era, “there was a tendency to view children not as unique individuals but as a monolithic category of people to be managed, controlled and often ignored,” she wrote. Many kids were “abandoned, emotionally and academically.”
Since that time, outcomes have significantly improved for many groups, she argues.
"Take learning disabilities. Before each child became 'special,' a child with a learning disability could face a decade or more of agony and a fast track to the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder," Christkis writes.
"But changes in pedagogy that support atypical learning styles and abilities have opened up opportunities for millions of kids whose failures would have carried a costly public price tag. That’s easy to forget when people decry the coddling-and-cosseting trend. Similarly, girls, children of color, gay teens, children with physical disabilities, even kids with allergies or unique religious and cultural attributes have all benefited from the chance to feel 'special' and as worthy as any child of protection and respect," she concluded.
Still there is much evidence for the hypothesis that the self-esteem train has gone off the rails. This is a generation of kids who are unaccustomed to being denied, observed Liz Gumbinner, a family writer for the Huffington Post. "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," she wrote. "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."