Your Child is Special, Don’t Say It

The learning curve of life is filled with complexities that would make most of us shudder. Still, Don’t take away all their most critical challenges that’ll benefit them later in life.

1116_class-act“Precious Child,
Don’t ever say that you are a nobody.
You are not nobody.
You are not even somebody.
You are special, one-time,
never to be repeated.
You are unique.”

That little verse above was written by someone in my WeChat moments last week. Now, allow me to play Devil’s advocate this month and say that I disagree with it. Why? Because it is this kind of sentiment that has brought the rise of the “snowflake generation.” People seem to think that this generation needs to be protected and mollycoddled from anything they find offensive or unpalatable. In other words, they are a generation that is handed a prize simply for participating.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for building children’s self-esteem, but unearned confidence is perhaps one of the most damaging, politically correct beliefs currently in education. Teaching children to feel great, despite their own mediocrity or encouraging children to feel bullied whenever their fragile egos are confronted by critical comments from their peers is counter-productive. These children will find out soon enough that the real world can be a tough place .What a lot of well-meaning parents and teachers attempt to do by removing obstacles and challenges from children, actually hampers their ability to overcome such difficulties.

When I asked what the other boy did, he explained that he had called him an idiot. When I questioned if he had done or said anything else, he said “no, just ‘idiot.’”

The problem is not about making children feel good about themselves, but rather creating the idea that their attention is trained primarily on themselves: “I’m special, I’m important, and here’s how I feel about things.” It encourages a self-absorption bordering on narcissism.

There are primary school sentence-starter exercises that begin with “All About Me” rather than class projects called “All About Us.” Is it not better to foster a sense of community among children, rather than a collection of self-absorbed individuals?

It is everywhere nowadays, whether manifested by China’s “little emperor” phenomenon, or in Western university students’ needing of safe spaces, as well as, being unreasonably triggered by various things they find offensive.

Growing thick skin
This leads me to something closely related to unearned self-esteem: the concept of bullying. Bullying used to be associated with getting assaulted, like having your lunch money stolen or enduring constant and systematic cruelty. However, bullying nowadays encompasses teasing and name calling, having your stuff messed with, spreading rumors, insensitive jokes, aggressive gestures and exclusion from friendship groups.

Not that long ago, a fourth grader came up to me and said that he was being bullied by another boy during lunchtime. When I asked what the other boy did, he explained that he had called him an idiot. When I questioned if he had done or said anything else, he said “no, just ‘idiot.’”

Such sensationalism about the effects of bullying encourages children and young adults to overreact to what are merely words, however horrible they may be.

“Kids are taking their lives not because they are being attacked by violent gangs, but because they can’t tolerate being insulted,’ American psychologist Israel Kalman explains.

Now, I would like to address a couple of points that you might be thinking:

  • “There is no proof that self-esteem doesn’t matter.” Yes, this is true, but the burden of proof lies on those that say that it does, as it is generally impossible to prove the negative.
  • “Self-esteem by itself may not be enough to guarantee high academic achievement or produce well-adjusted adults, but it may be a vital piece of the puzzle to do so.” This is very true. I consider self-esteem an important and relevant factor in any well-adjusted person. However, what I am arguing against is unearned self-esteem.

Growing up sometimes means falling down
Unearned self-esteem discourages children from making any effort. If attention is focused on the value of who you are rather than on what you do, then you probably won’t do very much.

They should also never, ever fear failure. Failure and achievement are part of the learning process and when they occur, a person should focus on how much effort they put in, rather than ability. Focusing on the learning itself is more important than worrying about what marks they will get.

We would all do better if we treated children with respect instead of showering them with unearned praise and sheltering from all evil in the world. Students will better acquire a sense of significance from doing meaningful things, being active participants in their own education and connecting to their peers.