Gretchen L. Kelly, Author

Stop Telling Your Kids They’re Special

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“You can’t always get what you want,

But if you try sometimes you just might find,

You get what you need.”

-The Rolling Stones, You Can’t Always Get What You Want

We are ruining them. Our kids. Every day that we lavish praise on them and reward them for mediocrity we’re ruining them. We’re teaching them that showing up is worthy of enthusiastic applause. We are showing them how to excel at being average. We are lowering bars and lowering I.Q.’s. We are enforcing the destination not the journey. And we will one day send them off into the world to get a giant, blindsiding slap in the face when reality comes charging at them full speed.

I Am Guilty

I’m guilty of it. Most of us are guilty of some of this or all of this. It starts when you feel that all-consuming love for a small baby that needs you for everything. We marvel at them. We all think our babies are exceptional and amazing in every way. And that’s ok. Having a child feels like a small miracle. It is a life changing experience. We should have a few years of obnoxious, gleeful celebration. And we should encourage and cheer for every milestone with these little prodigies. Babies need the affirmation. They need constant encouragement and reassurance.

The problem is that while babies grow out of this need as they get older, the parents don’t grow out of the need to give it. We continue to applaud. Applaud them for going down the slide (when in fact gravity is to be credited for this feat). We gush over every scribbled picture. What happens when your kids catch you throwing away some of their 8,000 pieces of artwork? They flip out. They feel wronged. Because we have led them to believe that every paper that they grace with their crayon is a Monet. I know this. I have little prima donna artists who think it is sacrilege to dispose of their “art.”

Everyone Wins, Everyone Gets A Trophy

Know what makes winning not so fun? When everyone wins. All the time. Parents don’t want their little slugger’s feelings to be hurt when his team loses, so someone somewhere decided that all the kids should win. So work hard, Buddy! Show up to practice and maybe, just maybe… no definitely. You will definitely win. No matter what. Now that’s some motivation. Nothing gets the kids all fired up like “even if you win, you really don’t win because we don’t keep score.”

And everyone must get a trophy. Why? Because they showed up, dammit.  You know what else everyone gets? A Tetanus shot. (well, sadly, that’s not actually true, but you get the idea) We have a generation that gets trophies for being on a team. Not for doing anything remarkable or winning a tournament, but just for showing up for games and practices. My son’s closet is full of these trophies. And he doesn’t care. They mean nothing to him. What did mean something to him was getting the game ball. Because not everyone got the game ball. And he had to earn it. It was special.

Life’s Not Always A Party

Our school adopted the “no homemade treats” rule. And some of the parents on Facebook acted like they were suggesting we feed our kids gruel and beat them with switches. A policy that is meant to protect kids with allergies was beaten down as a taking away of a childhood of joy.  Nevermind that a child in the class could possibly die from an allergen in the sugary treat. The mentality that puts little Precious’ happiness with a cupcake over another child’s safety is one that confounds me and scares me. My child’s happiness will never be worth more than another child’s life.

And the parties… don’t get me wrong. I love a good party. But since when is school also a party palace for every holiday? At the risk of sounding like Wilford Brimley, when I was in school we had two parties. One at Christmas/Hannukah and one at the end of the year. These parties consisted of Kool Aid and a cookie and some games of Red Rover. We loved it. Try to do a party like that in school these days and you’ll get the eye roll from even the sweetest kindergartner. We’ve spoiled them with elaborate celebrations in and out of school for every holiday or event. Even made up holidays! The 100th day of school is to now be celebrated for the historical and cultural even that it is! *eye roll*

Now we have Elf On the Shelf grrrrr… Pinterest-ized Valentines ugh… and the “Naughty Leprechaun?” What the….??? Since when did we decide that St. Patrick’s Day was for the kids? Don’t they have enough already? St. Patrick’s Day is for adults. It’s for us to drink green beer and act stupid. Kids, all you get to do is wear a green shirt and possibly get pinched. Now sit down and eat your gruel before I get out the switch…

All Of This Results In…

Entitled kids. Young adults with no sense of self awareness. A child-centric childhood that teaches kids that the world revolves around them. That the world is a soft fluffy place that will never ask too much, will never scuff them up, that will never demand anything. That phoning it in is acceptable. That someone will always fix things for them. That they are everything. That they are special.

What’s wrong with letting your kids think they’re special? Nothing. Unless that’s all you let them think, all the time.

The more we tell them that every little thing they do is “special” the less special that compliment becomes. Pretty soon “special” is their default, not-even-trying mode.

Kids are always going to take the easy path. Why wouldn’t they? If they can get an “A” on a project for slapping something together in between playing Minecraft, then why would they push themselves? If their mild attempts are lauded as exceptional, they will never try to go beyond that. They will only reach as high as the bar we set for them.

So, no, you’re not special. Sorry kids, but you’re better off hearing it now. Before you try to demand a raise three months into a new job. Before you have to eat at Taco Bell every day, all while carrying your Prada purse that Mommy and Daddy bought you. Before you realize you will have to be the one to pay off the giant credit card debt you incurred because you deserved stuff.

So, it may sting right now. It may be a bitter pill to swallow. But heed this message now and you’ll find that hollow, empty feeling of getting awarded for all things all the time replaced with pride. With the confidence of doing hard work. Of knowing you’re capable of hard work. You will discover new emotions. Gratification. Fulfillment. Purpose. Self respect. All of that can be yours. As long as your realize that the only way to be special is to earn it.


19 Responses

  1. Agreed. I think the way basic passing grades have been downgraded plays into things as well.

    For example, I used tutor kids and teens in basic English and by the time my girls (foster) hit high school, all the basic English requirement standards had been significantly lowered. What used to be a passing grade was the same across the board, but now it’s been renamed and revaluated. Now we have Communications 10, 11 or 12; you don’t need to have legible handwriting, know how to spell, or have the ability to read more than what amounts to a sound bite.

    Yes, you can still go for the academic version, but how many kids at the ages of 12, 15 or even 17/18, are going to really understand, or care, that they will be the ones paying for taking the lazy route?

    That is not to say I don’t understand the need for non-academic courses, or that every kid is different. I do. And I don’t blame the teachers. A lot of it has to do with budgets being cut year after year while class size grows.

    Of course it’s not that simple. It never is. There’s a ton of perfectly valid, understandable reasons for this cultural paradigm shift. I don’t have answers, but I do agree that just letting kids skate through their basic education is wrong. In the end, we’ll all pay for it.

    1. It’s really hard for me to compare the quality of education now vs then because I went to really poor inner city schools. I probably could have skipped all of high school and gone straight to college, that’s how poor the high school education was. But I know we didn’t have cupcakes every week for some kids’ birthday or parties for Halloween and Valentines Day… We didn’t get awards and trophies every single year! My kids have awards ceremonies every single year in Elementary school and every kid gets some kind of award. It’s so ridiculous. My son’s Middle School only gives awards to kids who did something exceptional.

      One thing I do notice, is teachers don’t seem to correct spelling and grammar mistakes. Even in English classes! I think here everything is so test driven that that is the sole focus. Our kids just had their end of the year tests two weeks ago and the rest of the school year is useless. Once the tests are done they just hang out. They have barely had homework since then. The schools are only focused on the tests so they get more gov’t funding. They drill these kids over and over on what’s going to be on the tests. There is no more critical thinking… It is sad.

  2. Amen, sister! Especially on that whole teacher thing. Does anyone think a boss is going to ask her employees what their optimal working environment is? Hell no. Successful people are adaptable people, and people who know how to fail and get back up again. End of story. Boom.

    Love this.

  3. Did you just drop the mic on my blog? If so I am completely honored that my post would inspire you to do so! 🙂

    My kids are no stranger to disappointments and I certainly don’t coddle them when it comes to school or “difficult” or “not nice” teachers. But, honestly, I worry that they’re a little too soft. And if so, it’s all my fault. (And my husband’s. I’m not letting him off the hook. Actually it would be like 75% his fault…) There’s no way around the fact that they have it much easier than we did. But I am trying my damnedest to make them adapt and evolve and toughen up. I just joked with my husband last weekend that we needed to drop them off downtown and see if they could figure out how to get home… I mean, I would die of a heart attack out of fear and nervousness and then they would be motherless, but I think other than that it could be an interesting exercise (if it weren’t for D.S.S.)

  4. I so agree! Life is all about accountability, and all these kids that think they are special know nothing about it.
    As a side note I hate that friggin’ Elf on a Shelf!

  5. As a former first grade teacher, I have to say that I LOVED the 100th day of school. It was a great opportunity to teach number concepts and have fun with numbers for a day (and the build up was counting and learning the concepts before we got there). That said, I never did anything over the top or make it a party day. It was just a special theme day. Yes, we had award ceremonies, but not every child got an award through the year (although I hoped I could make it fit so that each child got one that year…the most likely being perfect attendance but that was more up to their parents than themselves).

    One thing I did as a teacher was teach accountability. Now as a parent, I try to do the same. My daughters don’t see me throw out the art projects, but they do see me save and highlight the extra special ones…the ones that merit special praise. I agree that too many parents, in an effort to build self-esteem and confidence in their kids, do too much praising. I think there was a time when there wasn’t enough of the build up. We as parents try to find the balance. Right now, it’s over saturation of praise. I can’t help but hope that we adjust and find the right way to encourage without too much praise. As parents, we can offset the insanity of schools and team activities by our own reactions to their “awards” and being realistic with our children about what they mean.

    Sorry for being so long-winded, Gretchen, but it is something I’ve thought about as well.

    1. I do think the 100th day is a great tool for teaching math. And I really don’t care that they make it into a party. It just seems like every month there are things to send in for some kind of celebration! And when they are in younger grades, I think the little awards that the teachers come up with specific to each student are great for giving kids a positive attitude about school (we just had my kindergartner’s “graduation” today and it was adorable!)

      I think my favorite thing about my son going to Middle School was all the parties and the extras stopped. The only awards given out were for the kids who truly deserved them. And the school wasn’t asking for things to be sent in every single week for all of the celebrations. And, I might add, he loved middle school! Next year I’ll only have one kid in elementary while the others move on to High School and Middle School and while I say that I’ll be relieved, I’ll probably be the one to start planning all of the school parties just to cling to her childhood a little longer!

  6. I’m with you on this, GKelly!

    I’m a Tiger Mom. I’m tough as hell on my kid. I’m even a bitch (yes. I am.)

    When he wanted to compete in a karate tournament and hadn’t practiced at all, I told him he was not competition-worthy. He has a school concert this week, and he hasn’t practiced his sax at all. He sounds awful, and I told him so.

    I’m not giving him praise for being mediocre, or worse, plain old crappy. If he wants to be really good at something, he needs to WORK at it. He’s almost 12. I’ll be damned if I’m going to ooh and ahh over every little thing he does.

    Of course, the flip side is, I give him accolades for his accomplishments – even if it’s just a small personal victory, like for example – if he handles a disappointment with a friend better than he did the last time.

    I have a very “Chinese Mother” attitude towards my kid – I assume STRENGTH, not FRAGILITY.
    Jesus, if I wrote about this on Scary Mommy they would Tear. Me. To. Shreds. hahahahaha

    1. Ha! If you wrote a recipe for cupcakes on Scary Mommy they would tear you to shreds.

      You know, I’m tough in some areas and a softy in others. Respect is huge. Being kind to other kids. Doing their best in school work. Those things are non-negotiable. I love your mothering style. We have similar mentalities in that area, you are just more consistent and better with follow through.

      And you totally need to write about “assuming strength, not fragility.” Seriously.

  7. agreed. especially with food stuff anf patents thinking their opinion is king.
    my kids play a instructional leagie sport that gives out trophies to all but they also do dance and it’s not as “fluffy ” ..I def think as a society wr need to create a more realistic environment for them. great blog

    1. That’s the thing. We’re setting them up to think that every time they sneeze it’s a special event. Then they go to work and are shocked that they don’t get a raise or promotion for just showing up!

      And thank you…

  8. agreed!! my kids play a sport that’s instruction al and less competitive and they get trophies but they also do dance stuff which is less fluffy .love this blog. definitely need to provide a realistic environment for our kids

  9. I think it is clear that kids don’t necessarily thrive on the extra praise and they want winning to mean something. My son when he was in Pre-K came home one day and talked about the games that they played. When we asked him if he won any he said the following “The teacher said we ALL won but I won more.” It cracked me up. The participation trophies go straight in the trash but the first place medals cheap plastic that they are get displayed because they were earned. Kids want that rush of doing well. As parents we have to follow the more difficult path of helping them find the thing that they can excel at rather than creating a false win at every little thing.
    Really enjoyed this blog, it’s so true.

  10. Thank you Melissa! I love what you’re son said! He obviously saw the ridiculousness of it all! And the other side of it is we’re not teaching kids to deal with disappointment. We’re sheltering them from losing or not always being the center of attention. There have been articles about kids getting depressed when they go off to college or get in the workplace because they have never really experienced disappointment before…

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