My Mommy Says I’m Special
Special is a funny word. One might even say it is a special word. The word can imply greatness, value and affection, but at the same time imply high maintenance, abnormality, uncertainty and vulnerability.
Take a moment and think – when someone calls you special how does it make you feel about yourself?
It is really very confusing – is it a good thing or a bad thing to be special? In roughly third grade, children realize this duality of meaning and play it to their advantage in the battle for playground dominance – when a few bullies realize that they can emotionally traumatise their peers by flipping the meaning of the word their mother has used to describe them since they were born.
I was planning on writing about the word ‘special’ before the graduation speech given at Wellesley High School that is being discussed all over the media but it has inspired me to actually write it. The fact is, I have been telling my students the same thing for a long time. Special isn’t a merit badge; you don’t earn it or work for it. And to constantly remind anyone how special they are implies that we have the authority to deem someone ‘special’ when we certainly don’t.
Another article I read not so long ago was about a high school student competing in her state championships for track and field. One of her competitors fell from exhaustion and instead of worrying about her own performance she helped the other girl up and they crossed the finish line together.
Now don’t get me wrong, this girl deserves lots of credit, but the way this article was written and especially the comments made me scratch my head. Yes, there are people who would not have thought to stop, but I believe this girl is in the majority – not the minority. And before you question my judgment, remember that not only am I an athlete, but I have coached high school sports at a high level for years. Does she deserve 30 seconds on the local news station and a sportsmanship award? Absolutely. Does this warrant an article on espn.com, the Huffington Post and a Purple Heart? No. She may be a hero someday – but this wasn’t her Wonder Woman moment. I was being nice by leaving a little part out of the story too – this girl and her fallen comrade were in the last two spots and were out of contention when this occurred. So it isn’t exactly like she sacrificed a medal (she had already won gold in the previous event).
The underlying problem here isn’t whether children are special and it is not whether they believe they are special – it is how we define the word special itself.
I’m going to say it one more time because it warrants some repetition. I have no doubt that this girl is a wonderful human being. I’m just trying to say that when we blow stories like this out of proportion it has a real impact on the people who read them. I find it much more uplifting to think of this girl’s actions as nothing special at all. Not because she isn’t special; but because compassion and decency aren’t as hard to find as the media sometimes leads us to believe these days.
All special really means is unique; to be special is to be different in some meaningful way. And I wholeheartedly believe that every child – actually every human being – is special. But somewhere along the way special has shifted to mean ‘better’ or ‘above average’. This is the dangerous misconception. It isn’t whether or not anyone is special; it is realizing how you are special and using that to make the world a better place.
That is the piece that makes adolescence so difficult – most people never truly discover what it is that makes them special until much later in life. Yet here we all are telling them how special they are and not only does this foster a sense of entitlement and arrogance, but it makes them actually start to resent and avoid the things that are special about them.
The worst thing about ‘specialness’ is that we use it to judge and compare, and judgment and comparison are toxic to all of us – especially children and young adults. My advice is to use it extremely sparingly. Overuse it and they will resent the word. Use it too sparingly and they will resent you. And never forget the most important thing – telling someone else that they are special does not mean that you are special.
Simply put, it is necessary to remind our children and students that they are special now and then, but if you actually believe that they are special and treat them that way every day you may be surprised at just how rarely the word ever needs to be said.