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You’re Not Special: The Messages we Send our Children

I had to smile when RookieMom referenced David McCullough Jr.’s commencement speech in last Friday’s links, because as soon as I heard the story about it on the radio, I knew I wanted to write something about it. I think we both agree that the message of the speech is a good one.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the messages we send our kids by some of the things we say to them. As I’ve referenced before, both of my kids, but especially Max, say “I can’t” a lot. I usually redirect and ask him to ask for help instead of saying I can’t, but some people have said to him something along the lines of “of course you can, you can do anything you set your mind to”.  I know I’m cynical, but it just makes me cringe when I hear that. I can’t help thinking that it’s just not true. I’m not saying that people should set limits for their kids as far as achieving goals, but can anyone really do anything he puts his mind to? Chances are, Max isn’t going to play in the NFL for example. So as a parent, should I be encouraging him to try to practice hard? Yes, I should. But should I be telling him that if he does that, he’ll make the team? I’m not sure. His chances will be higher, yes, but is the correct message to actually tell him that he can do ANYTHING? I’m not so sure.

So back to the Wellesley High School Commencement Speech. I’m sure some parents were shocked to hear this message at their child’s high school graduation, but I think it’s a good one. You have to work hard to achieve things. You have to pay attention and learn how to learn and ask questions. There are always people in the world who are going to be better than you at something…though there is nothing wrong with trying to be good at something; better at something.

What do you think? Should we be honest with our kids or continue sending them affirmative messages?


  1. Kate

    Kate June 14, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    I think some middle ground between encouraging children to reach for the stars but keeping their head on the ground is probably the right path. What that means in practical parents terms, I have no idea yet!

    One of the messages I loved about the speech was encouraging students (and all of us) to stop looking at life experiences as things to put on a college resume or post on Facebook. To remember to follow our passion and let the things that we choose to do be for no reason other than we derive meaning and enjoy doing them. It’s one of the most important lessons I hope to pass on to Liam as he grows.

  2. Erin Royer-Asrilant September 22, 2012 at 4:10 am

    Great points and well taken. I teach this and more in my Self-Esteem workshop for parents, that self-esteem comes from mastery and a feeling of being needed (which means contribution) It must be built and cannot be given. But word choices can be tricky. I do think everyone has special gifts and contributions to make. But one person’s gifts are not more special, or better than another. As parents, part of our job is to try to help our child figure out his/her gifts and allow him/her to begin to cultivate them. (no rush, we have 18 years to set them on a path to continue this on their own!) We also, as a society need to be sure to celebrate, embrace and appreciate differences. No one is the end-all, be-all. If we all contribute with our given talents, the world will be an amazing place!

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