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Sorry son, but you are not special
Posted at: Jun/14/2012 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: People, Perspectives, Society,
When my oldest son was still in those single digit years we enrolled him in a performing arts school. I remember attending one of his schools performance recitals where my son had to do a jazz dance routine before all the other students and their parents. I still recall that for being a performing arts school, almost everyone was pretty bad at what they did in their performances. It was entertaining to see all these little kids sporadically moving about the stage, but for the money we were paying for him to be in a private school it was a disappointment. Fortunately, we did not enroll him because we though he would become a dancer or musician, we were looking for the academic benefits of smaller class sizes that a private schools could offer.
I tell small lies when I don’t want to hurt someone feelings, but raising children has to me always meant a mix of love and preparing them for the realities and harshness of the “real world.” Having an unrealistic view of yourself can make your day to day existence as an adult really tough.
At the end of the recital, while driving to get a burger he asked “how did I do?”
I took a breath and replied, “not very good, you shouldn’t plan on being a dancer when you grow up.”
I remember noticing that he smiled back and agreed saying, “I know, I don’t think any of us were very good.”
We laughed about it, enjoyed our burgers and had a fun drive home talking about cartoon characters. It is amazing to me some of the conversations that stick in my memory.
I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about parenting, it is one of those tasks where you learn as you go and have to live with your mistakes. I do know that my wife and I are supposed to be preparing our children to go out and live in the real world. Sugarcoating my son’s shortcoming to protect his feeling is a disservice. I can’t think of a better way to raise a loser than to lie telling them that they are a winner at everything they do. I know, not everything in life is a competition, but my children need to learn that not everything they do in life makes them a winner.
Both of my sons have spent years playing soccer. My wife and I have encouraged participating in sports because of three big benefits, fitness, team work and coping skills. The first two are obvious; if you want to become a fat slob, you can do that after you are grown and move out. Sports promote fitness, healthy activities and healthy choices. Team sports have the obvious value that comes with doing something as a team, success or failure…you got there together.
Coping skills is the more subtle value garnered from sports. Running up to kick the ball, if my son gets a bad touch and doesn’t kick it where he wanted he is going to be upset with himself. If he wants to pout over his failure, he could be standing there stomping the ground for 5, 10 or even 30 minutes (I have seen this behavior in some players). If my son is going to be of value to his team mates, he needs to get over his errors very quickly (seconds if not faster) and get mentally and physically back in the game. Just as quickly he could be in position to create a positive situation leading to a score. I can remember as a kid being grabbed by the grill on my football helmet and yelled at for the play I just blew. Five minutes later I was back on the field and doing it right. Just like in life, one good play has the ability to wipe out a long list of mistakes. Learning to cope with our failures quickly, whether big or small is critical to success in life.
Not that everything in life is a competition, but our children need to know how to handle competition when it's necessary. Additionally, they need to know how to take criticism from others. Children will never strive to be better if their parents have inadvertently programmed them to believe they are already the best even when they're not. Once programmed that they are the best, they are in for some very rude experiences once they leave the protective cover of their parents. Not everyone gets to finish in first place, at least not the races I have seen.
There are roughly 37,000 high schools in American. That means for any given year there are 37,000 valedictorians. If my son is not the valedictorian of his graduating class next year that doesn’t mean he’s a failure, but it does mean someone else was more academically successful than him. A while back there was a move afoot in education to start rewarding students for creative efforts in math regardless of the solution they produced. The group driving this plan wanted to ensure that the self-esteem of the children in the math classes was not hurt just because they did not get the right answer. Fortunately this idea died as quickly as it appeared. Can you imagine balancing a bank account wrong or calculating the loading forces on an aircraft wing wrong? Instead of being told the result was wrong, the person is complemented for a creative response. Math is like many things in life, either you got it right, or you didn’t.
Sure, the job of high school teachers is not to tear down the students' self-esteem. But it's certainly not to inflate students' sense of self-worth with a bunch of unearned compliments and half-truths.
There is a middle ground where "how things are" and "how things can be" meets. It is at this middle point where growth happens. But if teachers, parents, coaches, and the other adults in a child's life never acknowledge "how things are" -- no matter how good their intention may be -- then they are denying that child an opportunity to mature. Developing a strong sense of self-confidence can only be earned by recognizing their own shortcomings and dealing with disappointments and failures along with their successes.
Partially, this is the basic challenge of parenting. When kids first enter the world they are totally dependent on their adults for food, shelter, hygiene and all other aspects of life. As parents we quickly adopt the role of protector and guardian. When our oldest son was a few months old he started crawling around the house. At one point he crawled under a table and lifted his head hitting it on part of the structure underneath. There was an initial instinct to put the table out in the garage until he was older. We decided instead to let him run into a few things and learn that he has to start paying attention to where he puts his head. By the way, it is not easy for parents to give up the role of protector. There is a life metaphor in this story that I hope you see.
My oldest son is special ... to me and his mother. I am sure he is also special to his other relatives and his circle of friends. The truth is that with over 7 billion people in the world he is not likely to be special to everyone else. We would be lying to him if we sent him out into the world having spent many years programming him with the notion that he was special.
The inspiration for this theme was a recent high school graduation. At Wellesley High School in Wellesley Mass., A high school English teacher, David McCullough gave the commencement address and told the graduating students “you are not special.” I’m glad he was there to tell them what they needed to hear. He went on to speak of the value of experiencing life, rather than just performing a list of accomplishments. Some have faulted McCullough for his tough words, I think he was brilliant. The commencement address is much more than just that one noted line and worth reading.
Accolades and accomplishments are great things to have in life, but not being special does not make you a failure. Parents, teachers, coaches, we all have an obligation to tell the children in our lives the truth. My wife and I along with our friends love our children, and to us they are and will always be special. For the other nearly 7 billion people, I doubt our sons are special…and they need to know this, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.