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David McCullough defends 'you’re not special' speech; we agree (+video)

David McCullough defends the ‘you’re not special' speech he gave at Wellesley High School last week. The English teacher addresses the current ‘everyone is special’ plague that is not helping students, parents or employers.

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In their book “The Narcissism Epidemic,” authors Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell have a chapter entitled “Seven Billion Kinds of Special.”  (This book, I will add, is one of the best parenting reads out there. Even if it’s not really a parenting book.) They take aim at the same phenomena that McCullough discussed in his speech and argue that our cultural habit of telling every child that she is special does quite a lot to lower achievement and lessen empathy.  (Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman argue a similar line in their popular book, “NurtureShock.”)

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is a longtime Monitor correspondent. She lives in Andover, Mass. with her husband, her two young daughters, a South African Labrador retriever and an imperialist cat..

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“Feeling special is narcissim – not self-esteem, not self-confidence, and not something we should build in our children,” Twenge and Campbell write. “You can tell your child she is good at math, or that she will be good at math if she works hard, without telling her she is 'special.' Feeling special may give people a grandiosity-tinged sense of comfort, but in a real world of collaborating with others, waiting in lines, and getting cut off on the freeway, it just leads to frustration. And it is unlikely to lead to respect for others.”

They note that teens who feel too special – those who really do see themselves as different and special compared to their peers – tend to have more depression and struggle more academically.

Twenge and Campbell make clear that they’re not telling parents to withhold love and affection from their kids.  Quite the contrary.  And sure, your child is special to you. But the overall Lake-Wobegon “everyone above average” approach to raising kids? Not so helpful.

They also explore how counter-cultural the “you’re not special” message can be.

“We are a nation fixated on the idea of being the exception to the rule, standing out, and being better than others – in other words, on being special and narcissistic – and we’re so surrounded by this ethos that we find it shocking that anyone would question it,” they write. “Fish don’t realize they’re in water.”

Which is perhaps why McCullough’s speech has gone viral.

Because much of his talk, to me, at least, seems to be calling out some obvious truths:

“You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. ... We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement."

And that goes well beyond high school students.

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