Your child is not special

eh,  you're okayI have not stopped thinking about this amazing Wellesley High School graduation speech since I saw it yesterday, thanks to Jen Singer. In it, brilliant English teacher David McCullough cautions his students, “you are not special.”

I admit when I first heard the line, I bristled a bit. Aren’t those fightin’ words for any doting parent? Who among us doesn’t want our child to be special?

However if you watch the speech (it’s worth your 12 minutes, I promise/ UPDATE: the video is now posted below just to make it easier) it’s clear there’s a distinction between a child who is special to me, and a child who is special in all the world and thus, deserving of its myriad rewards.

In other words, entitled.

McCullough reminds us that that 37,000 high schools graduating in the country, means 37,000 valedictorians and 37,000 class presidents. He beautifully asserts that “if everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.”And I think therein lies the lesson that many in my generation of parents is hoping to teach, in part to distance ourselves from the previous generation of overcoddling parents.

Or maybe it’s not so much previous. Kristen  just this week confessed to me that she pulled her kids out of their team awards dinner because even the suckiest teams were going to get something shiny; not the lesson she and her husband want to teach. She was the only parent in the league who evidently felt this way.

Slowly back away from the trophies, losers, You’ll thank me later.

You already know the phenomenon is well-documented. From the parents of 9 year-olds who don’t think the rules at summer camp apply to their children, to  the mother who calls an employer on behalf of her adult son.

All of which of course leads to the new generation of adults who are “unaccustomed to being denied.”

Not that every Millenial falls into this trap, of course. (And I’m trying so hard not to be the old farty lady who’s like hey you kids, get off my lawn and go back to your sexting!) But I can tell you as a professional, I have seen some of the “special”  kids coming out of college today. The kids who interview and make sure to tell you just what they will and will not do. (Oh, uh…okay. We’ll get right on that for you.) Or the the summer interns who earn highly coveted positions then look so bored in the senior level meetings they’re invited to, they practically fall asleep. In fact, I had an intern like this years ago. I was wildly impressed with his persistence; he called me every week for months until I offered him the internship.

Then, once he had it, he did nothing.


I spoke with him multiple times about his lack of work ethic, his bad attitude, the fact if he failed at one project it was his job to rip it up, get back to that computer and start over until he nails it, dammit. He never did. Mostly, he took really long lunches.

I nearly died when he emailed me months later to tell me how much he enjoyed the summer with us and to ask for a recommendation. I think in some twisted, warped, completely wackadoo way, in his mind, he deserved it. Simply because he was there. And being there was confirmation of his specialness. His entitlement.

So perhaps the most astute line in the entire commencement speech, the one that spoke to me the most was, “We’ve come to love accolades more than achievement.”

How true it is.

Not that there’s anything wrong with accolades, gob knows. It’s a terrific feeling to know you’ve done something that someone else admires. But man, it has to be earned, doesn’t it? So I truly want to make sure I’m raising kids who are proud of what they’ve done–and not simply what someone has said to them about what they’ve done.

What’s really disconcerting is that it’s not just kids proceeding like this. It’s among us. In our culture. It’s the entire reality TV celebrity culture (which I am guilty of supporting, big time.) And, yeah I’ll say it–it’s in the blogger space. Think about the race to game the system for a higher klout score, rather than developing an authentically involved community. The buying of Twitter followers and fans, or alleged trading in backlinks to create a facade of popularity.  Shamelessly plagiarizing blog posts, then basking in the bullshit glow of all the “wow, you are AWESOME for writing this!” comments beneath them.

Is this what we want for our own kids? Man, I hope not.

Which is why I don’t think that that wonderful speech was just aimed at the graduating seniors. I think it was very much aimed at their parents.

And, probably, at us.

I want my kids to know I believe in them. I want them to know I’m proud of them when they do something to be proud of. And I want them to know I love them, every single moment of every day and without condition.

But maybe I need to make extra sure that they know while they’re always special to me, (and argh, it’s hard to say this) they are not special. Or as McCullough plainly put it,”Astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center. Therefore you cannot be it.”

Thanks for cross-posting this at Huffington Post, Huffington Post. Interesting comments there. Only one real crazy. Good ratio!


142 thoughts on “Your child is not special”

  1. I loved the 12 minute video and passed it along to all children and grandchildren (10 – 21). I remember telling our youngest daughter, mother of 3 boys, how lucky we were that none of our grandchildren was “special” and how put out she was. I explained what it must be like to be the parent of a child prodigy…..a tortured soul like Beethoven. Vindication is terrific.

    1. McCullough also has a great line in there that essentially you can’t be special…because everyone is special. (Not just Beethoven.)

      The nuance in the speech is amazing. I truly believe it was delivered with love, and I hope that there’s something in there that kids can take away from it.

  2. Yep. Plus, yep, yep, and you betcha. I loved that speech. In a long comment string on one site where the transcript was posted, a former student of McCullough’s weighed in with a poignant thank you to him, so obviously he taught that way, too.

    Here’s my take from last week:

    1. I did say that he was wrong about one thing: Those children were special, in that they had him for a teacher.

  3. This is such an interesting topic to me. I wrote a post called ‘Special’ back when I wrote for Babble touching on these very ideas, and I think it does come down to the difference between feeling entitled versus feeling respected. But this is kind of an upper class problem in some ways.

    In my opinion there are too many kids out there who are never acknowledged for what makes them unique who are not regarded by anyone as special and it’s a tragedy. When little trophies are allotted, is the person who did well without effort really deserving compared to the child who struggled but gave it everything? I think even as children we know when something is earned and something isn’t, and I don’t have a problem with some kids getting meaningless awards if the few for whom it gives encouragement are inspired.

    (I haven’t listened to the speech you posted yet, though, so maybe I will be swayed differently when I do later.)

    1. I think in life, the person who wins, whether it comes naturally or not…wins. That’s not to say that we shoudn’t laud kids for effort. Knowing, really knowing, that you “did your best” is the most valuable feeling in the world. And I’d imagine hearing your parents say “we’re proud of you for it” will take a kid further in life than meaningless awards that put self-esteem over all else.

      (I know! I sound like Tiger Mom!)

      We’re all parents of little kids, relatively speaking. Watch the video. It’s a good look at what happens when entitled kids turn 18.

      1. Okay, I watched the video, and the speech is very good.

        But here is where I differ: There is a big difference between thinking everyone is special (and that doesn’t mean nobody is because each person is unique and special in his or her own way), and letting your kids grow up believing they are entitled to anything or deserving of accolades. My kids need to know I love them and am proud of them, but that those feelings don’t translate out in the world with strangers where they have to earn their place. In a sense, with great specialness comes great responsibility. Not to waste it, not to do harm with it, and not to let others treat you as if you are undeserving of respect and compassion.

        Every child should be lucky enough that someone is glad they are in this world. I have met children who were not so lucky. You never know to whom that worthless little trophy means something valuable. My children are privileged not because they receive little prizes but because for them the prizes are irrelevant. They know they are loved. There are children who are not loved. I’m not going to deny them a little prize because other children have too much.

        Failing to make an effort to see each human being as special puts us on a path where life is cheap.

        1. We agree completely! As I said, my children are my pride and joy. I love them unconditionally and they are special to me and the rest of their family, and always will be. I never go a day without telling them I love them.

  4. As a mom to three boys, the oldest of which is not athletically inclined – I don’t really understand the big stink some people have with trophies given out to everyone. So my 8 year old son, who tries his best every week – but may never be on a “winning” team – should receive no recognition for his efforts? My 5 year old slept with his soccer trophy for 4 months because it was so very important to him- and as his mom, I’m very happy that he was made to feel special. We had one mom on my oldest son’s team who specifically asked her son not receive a trophy because they did not win the championship – I can’t imagine that did more good than harm.

    1. Me and my brother both used to practice athetics. Running to be exact. My brother would win pretty much every race he entered, I would always finish last.

      He brought home medals and trophies and I watched my father proudly make a display cabinet for the things.
      I never got anything. Which sucked big time, as I also wanted people to congratulate me.

      But you know what….20 years later, the memory might not be directly fun, but it’s not anything else either. I didn’t win as I’m not a good athlete. He did. It’s how life is.
      Some might want to start proclaiming I learned important lessons from te experience, but I can’t even say that is the case. Looking back at it, it just isn’t important. So…perhaps you shouldn’t make itimportant for your kids instead. ^^

      1. I remember wanting to get that Presidential Medal every year in that physical fitness measurement thing. Never happened. Mostly bronze. One year, finally, I got a silver and it meant the world to me. Because I worked my ass off for it. I earned it.

        And those kids who got the Presidential Medals because they were born fast or agile or strong? They deserved it too.

        It also told me that I would never grow up to be an olympic track star. Kind of glad I figured that out early.

    2. I guess we just disagree Kristen. I don’t think that that mother did harm at all. She was instilling in her son the that if you have not earned the prize, you do not get the prize. That’s life, right? When should our kids learn this lesson exactly? When they’re young and resilient? Or when they’re graduating college and find themselves without job recommendations.

      I imagine she wants her son to learn to work harder if he wants the trophy–or perhaps to realize that this sport isn’t his calling and therefore to try something new.

      Also, I think there’s a difference between a 5 year old and a 10 year old. I think it’s awesome that your youngest felt so proud to have earned something for his participation. My five year-old is the same. But now a year later, it’s not the medal she talks about for running 1 mile around a track at Thanksgiving–it’s the fact that she rant he mile.

      That’s why I love what that teacher said about teaching kids to feel proud for the achievement, not for the accolade.

      And hey, maybe your 8 year old has a crapload of trophies in his future! They just might not be for sports.

      1. I do agree that there is a difference between the 5 year old and the 10 year old. I also think (obviously) every kid is different, thus parented different. My 5 year old will try anything I put in front of him, my 8 year old will not. If giving him a “trophy” for participation entices him to attempt new things and put himself out there to FIND his strengths and experice success in other areas, then I’m all for it. There also a large gender difference that plays heavily into this as well, which is a whole other topic. I agree that the feeling of accomplishment is THE most important aspect of success. I do think that when my sons look at their trophies and medals, they think of that success, and not just winning (or losing) as the case may be. In the case I mentioned earlier – having that little 5 year old watch each of his teammates get a trophy that he was not permitted to “earn” is a silly way to teach the lesson, in my opinion. A 5 year old t-baller shouldn’t have to work on his “skill” in order to get a trophy, nor should he have to decide that that sport isn’t for him…. the prize was earned by coming to the practices/games and working hard… therefore, they all earned that prize. I’m not sure when they have to learn the hard truths of life- with 3 boys 8, 5 and 3… for me, it’s more about what we do/teach/discuss every single day and less about handing out trophies a few times a year.

      2. I agree that there’s a difference between a 5 yo and a 10 yo. Is that when the participation trophies will stop? My son (age 6) already has a half-dozen of them, and just tosses them on his shelf. I don’t think he cares about them at all. What a waste of money.

  5. “He beautifully asserts that “if everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.”

    My daughter was one of the only kids in gym class, that didn’t get a medal. Most children with autism have difficulty in physical education classes because of the fast pace, sensory stimulations and multiple transitions.

    She cried herself to sleep one night saying, “I will never get a medal like everyone else.”

    So for someone who truly is special, that trophy means everything in the world.

    Having said that, my oldest daughter just graduated with Honors and has more medals from debate than I’ve ever seen. They mean a lot to her too.

    I think the actual words we use, and say to people…. matter. Even with a good point, negative wording can hurt. I also think it’s better to view the world face-to-face, and not through binoculars or from high rise buildings.

    Thanks for the thought provoking content. 😀

    1. Oh, ouch. If you’re going to do the “everyone gets a medal” thing, then EVERYONE should get a medal! Excluding just a few kids is horrible. If not everyone is going to get a medal, then make the medals really selective- as in, only a few kids get them. It seems like this is one thing for which the middle ground is actually way worse than the two extremes.

    2. I completely understand that special needs kids have different circumstances. I imagine in her case a medal is a sign of fitting in as much as anything.

      Please understand that I’m not advocating for telling our children “you are not special.” (Although it’s fascinating that it’s gotten to the point in this society where a teacher felt he had to do so.) I am a fan of teaching my kids to be proud of things they have worked hard to achieve. When the pride comes from within, from the self-satisfaction of a job well done, I think they’ll be better prepared for life.

      1. As a time to celebrate on such a beautiful day, this guy took a most special moment to spew the mic with his distasteful cynical word puke.

        He is clearly full of negative hostility and having marital problems (hence beginning his speech on marriage). I don’t see this presentation as beautiful at all.

        (p.s) I rarely comment on blogs other than food related so you really got me thinking here! 🙂

        He lost all credibility with me to discuss parenting or anything else.

        What I know is that my ideas about parenting have changed over the past (19 years). COMPLETELY CHANGED. When my oldest daughter was young, I often compared her to other children, and apologized to myself for thinking she was Gods gift to this world and better than other children. Now that she is in college, I see children/people differently. I raise my 7 &8 year old daughters with a different eye, a different voice.

        It wasn’t until I became a Girl Scout leader that I realized and saw that all people, are the center of the universe, in their own space. And that is how I walk this earth seeing them. Do not assume, that strangers in the world won’t think your child is the center of the universe. But I’m sure this particular guy in the video would hate your child for screaming on the plane or ruining his dinner in a restaurant.

        We give our children pride by holding them up, and pointing out their specialness, always focusing on the positive, and facing life with a “Can Do” attitude.

        You can never love ‘too much’, your own, or another.

        1. We’ll just have to disagree on our perspective on him. I felt wry, but compassionate tough love from him for the student body I imagine he cares very much about them. HS graduation faculty speakers are often voted on by the student body (though I can’t say how he was chosen). And when he talked about climbing a mountain to see, not to be seen; or visiting Paris and being in the moment, not simply crossing it off a list of accomplishments–it really spoke to me.

          Maybe I’m projecting here, but I still remember someone coming to our college class and saying to us “most of you will not succeed in this profession. Most of you are not good enough.” He wasn’t being rude, he was being honest. It pushed me to work harder. It pushed other people into professions where they turned out to be happier. He ended up being my boss several years later. And a lot of those kids to this date tell me that speech was what they needed to hear.

          I’d love to hear back from the HS students in a few years, wouldn’t you?

          1. Aha. So, here’s his response to all the publicity:

            “My intention was a little hyperbolic drollness to get their attention so they would be paying attention by the end when I told them what I really wanted,” McCullough said.

            McCullough ended his speech with, “Selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special – because everyone is. Congratulations, good luck. Make for yourselves, please for your sake and ours, extraordinary lives.”

            “I’ve been teaching high school kids for 26 years,” McCullough said. “In that time, one comes to see what kids need to be told. These are wonderful kids. And one grows very fond of them and proud of them, but that doesn’t mean you should indulge them with things, with platitudes or false encouragement. I wanted to give them a notion that with their privilege comes responsibility.”

    3. Lanie,

      My daughter has autism, too, and I know what you mean about the challenges of PE. I would encourage you to find another physical activity for her that accomodates her challenges and lets her feel that she CAN be successful at it.

      For my daughter, it was horseback riding in 4th and 5th grade. She has a real affinity for animals and it was a physical activity that was hard, not everyone can do it, and yes – she could earn ribbons at their summer camp (everyone got one for different things – best trot, best care of their horse, best attitude, etc.) It is 6 years later and those ribbons are still in her room.

      In middle school, when she was dealing with bullies and the general angst that goes along with puberty, we switched to karate. We went with a studio that encourages kids to work hard, but also awards new belts every 6 weeks. The kids have to do their best – don’t phone it in, have respect, follow the rules, have a good attitude, etc. – but they don’t have to have perfect form. Anyone, including a number of kids that have autism, can earn their black belt in 3 years.

      Not sure what your daughter might be dealing with, but this turned out to be excellent for Lizzi. It is loud and people are yelling, but she gets to yell too. When homework is hard, and being around other teens is exhausting and mentally taxing, she can go here and relieve a lot of stress. For example, they break boards every class session (they are plastic training boards) and the look on her face is priceless. She feels very strong and engaged, but without the pressure of being social.

      This studio is part of a chain of studios called Victory Martial Arts and they have locations all over the country. (I don’t work there, and unless you join at the one in my neightborhood, there is no benefit to me whatsoever by promoting them.) Other Tae Kwon Do studios might be able to work with you too.

      The important thing is to find something physical that works for her. Lizzi has long been obsessed with Japan, anime and manga, so karate was a great way to use that obsession to her advantage.

      Good luck!


  6. People seem to be taking the trophy comment as more than a metaphor. I certainly do because at the moment I have 100 boxes of trophies (6 trophies per box!) sitting in my driveway waiting to be picked up. I get very upset when the coaches at the younger ages (5-9) don’t pick them up. These kids live for the trophy at the end of the season, and I cannot imagine a reason not to give them out, especially when they play non-competetive soccer. I don’t think that’s what McCullough was saying. I too have seen the entitled kids who come in to my office expecting the world when they have done little to earn it. I want to meet their parents and slap them just a little. Your child has to EARN special. They have to work for it. Just because my mom did not act as a concierge for me in the world doesn’t mean I have to overcompensate and go the other way with my kids. I turned out pretty damn ok, and I’d like them to be the same.

    1. In non-competitive sports? Great. Give each kid a tee or a trophy for completing the year or whatever. But in a competitive situation, I just believe that we’re doing our kids a disservice if we tell them that trying hard will get you medals in life. Sadly, it doesn’t. When should they learn that, exactly?

  7. You are so right, Liz.

    Yesterday was Edie’s ballet recital. And everyone got a medal. It was shiny and big and heavy. They spared no expense on the medals. The funny thing was, it didn’t mean much to her. She didn’t care about it. It’s sitting at the bottom of her ballet bag now, forgotten.

    When everyone gets a medal, it’s meaningless. I love that you wrote about this. Going to watch the speech now…


  8. Satisfactory, as usual Liz. ;-). Seems that a lot of people are confusing achievement with recognition these days. This struck me yesterday also, as I was reading the Times article about high school kids abusing stimulants in order to increase their grades. Sure they get the recognition, but at the expense of developing things like willpower and self-direction.

    Here’s the article:

  9. That team awards dinner, where the mom pulled her kid out? Since it’s probably just sitting there I was wondering if I could have that trophy.

  10. Interesting post, and interesting comments so far! I’m of two minds about this, even as an upper middle class parent of kids without any unusual challenges.

    On the one hand, I see what you’re saying and I largely agree.

    On the other hand, I worry that we risk swinging the pendulum too far back the other way. My oldest daughter is showing pretty clear signs that she’ll be “academically gifted” or whatever it is we’re calling that these days, and is also showing signs of the perfectionism that often accompanies this trait. From what I’ve read, I’m supposed to help her with that by praising her effort, not her intellect. And by encouraging her to do things that don’t come easily to her- i.e., that she doesn’t excel at.

    So, I’ll be the mother at the soccer gushing about how great it is that she tried really hard, even if she doesn’t score any goals. And I will no doubt be judged for it by someone else, because that’s what we do: judge mothers who aren’t doing whatever we’ve collectively decided is “right”, without regard for individual circumstances.

    And the thing is, I actually agree with the message I’ll be giving her. Trying hard IS more important that being great at something, especially for kids, who have yet to have the chance to find out what they really, really want to do. Because when you combine the willingness to keep trying hard at something you initially sort of suck at with a passion for something- that is when you get really great.

    I also have worked with a bunch of millenials in my last two jobs, and you know what? I’d say about 80% of them are awesome. Incredibly hard workers, etc, etc. So, really, just like the other generations, except not cynical yet. I don’t dispute that helicopter parenting and entitled young people are happening- I just wonder if they aren’t anything new, just the modern incarnations of something that has always happened. But then, I work in an industry that sort of selects for nerds, so I acknowledge that I’m get a skewed sample. But clearly, not all millenials were screwed up by the praise-heavy environment in which they grew up.

    All of which is to say: I’m not saying that I think Kristin is wrong for not having her kids at the awards ceremony. I’ve been a parent long enough now to truly know that I won’t know what I’ll do in a situation until I actually face that situation. But I want people to remember that this is not an “obvious” issue, and good parents will come down in different places on it- and will still raise good kids.

    1. @ Alyssa

      “So, I’ll be the mother at the soccer gushing about how great it is that she tried really hard, even if she doesn’t score any goals.”
      That’s me too. We’re in total agreement.

      I don’t want to tell anyone else how to parent. And you’re right, good parents take all kinds of tactics. However read Nurtureshock or the research they did on self-esteem and the results are fascinating:

      High self-esteem doesn’t improve grades, reduce ­anti-social behavior, deter alcohol drinking or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be ­counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly.

      They also cheat more on tests – because they want the A. Not the learning.

      (Read it! It totally changed my perspective about a lot of what I thought was right.)

      1. I’ve read it. They have an entire chapter on how the standard “you’re so smart” compliments backfire on kids like mine. And I’ve read a lot of other similar research, too- because watching my really smart little girl refuse to do things she couldn’t do perfectly was enough to jolt me into doing some reading. I’m not aiming for high self-esteem. I’m aiming for the willingness to try and fail and keep trying until she improves. For us, sports is one of the places where we can teach that, because she isn’t a natural athlete.

        Like I said, I don’t disagree with your post. I just think that figuring out how to praise and reward our kids is really complicated, and that what works for my kid may be a disaster for someone else’s kid, and vice versa. So I’m willing to cut the awards organizers some slack on this. Particularly for little kids. I’ll probably feel very differently when we get to high school! Or even junior high.

        1. Oops this is threading weird. That was meant for Alysa. In any case, let me spend more time with your comment -as always.

  11. This is brilliant.

    I’ve decided that the root of the problem is Barney.

    I was up in the middle of the night with my four year old recently, and Barney was the only thing on. Since it was 3am I was not in the best mood anyway, but I wanted to tell the kids singing along with their imaginary purple friend that actually they’re really not that fucking special. The message that their mere existence makes the world better is preposterous – and dangerous, really. Certainly those kids – any kids, our kids – can make the world better, but they have to actually DO something in order for that to happen.

    I love the distinction you made between our kids being special to US, as opposed to just being “special.” That’s a much better message.

    1. Ha, the speech mentions Barney too. I guess I never paid that much attention to it. That’s a good thing it would seem.

      Thanks Emily.

  12. As far as “all participants will be rewarded” goes, I’m all for kids who show up every day/week being rewarded with something of a token trophy if they were committed and tried hard. I think medals for recitals and trophies for a sport mean different things to different kids, but it’s the commitment and effort that should be rewarded, and not just the winning or losing. If the winners get a bigger trophy and the last place team gets a “good try” plaque then who could have a problem with that except parents who think it’s “not fair” that their kid didn’t get the same reward as the other kids because surely it’s the coaches/other kids on the teams fault for not being as good as their child surely is.

    I think the point some people are trying to make is that you shouldn’t get a medal trophy just because everyone else does. Kids who play sports and are committed to them deserve some token of acknowledgement . Kids who go out for the debate team, or math games, or chess club, or whatever else requires a commitment and effort put forth can all have medals for all I care!

    It’s the kids who don’t show up, or sit on the bench complaining, or don’t do anything at all but think they should get a medal or recognized for putting forth a minimum of effort as equals to the kids who did that bug me, and a lot of that comes from parents.

    Now the bigger issue of “you are not special” is spot on I think. When you look at the sheer numbers of people in the world, or in our country, or in a particular city or town, the idea of being “special” and deserving anything more than anyone else is purely an American ideal that can’t hold water. We’ve been brought up to believe that just because we are American we are special. We’ve been told that our religions make us special. And we’ve been told that we deserve any and everything we want, even while the rest of the world suffers.

    We use the most natural resources of any country on a per person average. We make the most garbage that we just dump in the ocean, we eat the most food, we pollute the most, make the most greenhouse gasses, and are generally pretty big dicks about it. So is it any surprise really that our kids are like that?

    As a Nation we are pretty entitled. We think we should have the best of everything, but not have to pay for it or pay taxes on it, and when our gas prices go even remotely close to what the rest of Europe pays we talk of impeaching the president even though he has no control over the gas prices. I think rather than just looking and blaming our children (not saying anyone here has or does), we should really all be looking at ourselves and start pointing the finger there as to why we’re all in this mess that we’re ALL in.

    Some of this just seems like we’re blaming the kids for growing up assholes, when they were raised by assholes. Maybe instead of saying “you are not special” we should be saying “WE are not special” and start the healing where it should always start, with ourselves. If we were the best people we could be, then theres a better chance that our kids will be more like us in that regard instead of the being selfish assholes part.

    Then we can all give our selves a medal for being so terrific (as long as it’s made from recycled medal)…

      1. Let me put it another way.

        shitty parents=shitty kids

        That’s why we have such great kids (most of the time)…

      1. “Some of this just seems like we’re blaming the kids for growing up assholes, when they were raised by assholes.”

        love that quote – and agree agree agree

    1. Liz,
      Love your blog, this post, and your husband!
      Spot on, my relatives in Europe do not think “We are all Special”. They think we are wasteful, crybaby a@#holes. We do need to try harder in being better citizens in this world, not just for our kids but for ourselves.

  13. I teach college English, and I can tell you that, more than anything else, it is this sense of entitlement that is plaguing our classrooms. Students, more of them than not, truly believe that they “deserve” an “A” just because they did the work. They don’t understand that you must do the work “well” to get the A; completion, in their eyes, is sufficient. Showing up is all that is necessary. And, yes, I have parents call to complain; I’ve had students bring me papers that their high school English teacher “re-graded” to “prove” it should be an “A.” It is mind-numbingly frustrating. I hope, hope, hope that the students listening to this commencement speech heard it.

    1. I really appreciate this perspective Catherine. I think as I said, a lot of us still have young kids. It’s still so hypothetical to imagine what “harm” can become of rewarding everyone just for showing up. We need to figure out how to do better. Feel free to offer any advice!

      1. I think what you’ve said in earlier comments is right on target. Kids should learn that, just because you’re not “special” at something (such as sports), doesn’t mean you can’t be amazing at something else, whether it be video games or the arts or academics.

        You know, I think that the number of times college students currently change majors is very much tied to this. Because we teach our children that they’re good at everything (or at least should be perceived as being good at everything), they have a very hard time settling on the thing that they actually are good at and enthusiastic about. Because everyone gets the same “Good job!”, children seem just as likely not to get the “You did a truly amazing job in your play,” marking them as better than the other “good jobs,” as they are to get the “maybe soccer isn’t you’re thing” speech. We are giving kids mediocre responses in everything rather than signaling their amazing strengths and, yes, disappointing weaknesses, so they are unable to process their passion.

        Similarly, we let them be satisfied with being okay at one thing (inevitably the one thing everyone is doing) rather than encouraging them to move on to something else (or at least additionally participate in that something else). We should allow our children a diversity of experiences so that they can find what they do excel at. And if that means being honest about strengths and weaknesses, I think that finding their passion is worth that.

        And I say all this as the mother of a two-year-old, knowing that one day I might have to sit her down and tell her that she has inherited her mother’s clumsiness rather than her father’s athletic prowess and, therefore, maybe the balance beam is not her best bet.

    2. Catherine–I see so much of this too. Even in the graduate students I teach who are part of Teach for America (supposedly the “cream of the crop” of college grads). I have to constantly remind students to turn in work and that the work be quality. The sense of entitlement is frustrating and absolutely impossible to reason with.

  14. *slowclap*

    I teach 5th grade and see everything that Catherine sees. Yes, work needs to be done. But parents need to realize that their child may not get As on everything AND THAT’S OK. In fact, most learning occurs when you fail (not that I want my students to fail…) If we were all good at everything, there’d be no diversity in the world.

  15. I agree 100%. Conditioning children to think they are entitled to something they haven’t earned or worse, recieving the same praise as someone that worked harder and achieved more only sets them up for failure in life. It’s understandable to want your kids to be happy and not feel disappointment. But the failure to teach lessons now as a parent only leaves them more vulnerable and unprepared when they’re on their own in the real world.

  16. The definition of trophy:

    anything serving as a token or evidence of victory, valor, skill, etc.

    If everyone gets a trophy, we are telling kids that they are victorious at showing up and skilled at breathing.

    We handed out trophies yesterday to our soccer team. They earned them by winning more games than any other team in the league. They also earned them with up to 7 kids on the injured list, sometimes playing a man down for an entire game and with great heart.

    In other words, they earned their trophies for their victories and skill. They did way more than show up.

    1. So you’re saying that the teams that showed up and played just as hard but happened to lose deserve no recognition because they didn’t win more?

      I’m all for a 1st place trophy, and I’m all for All-star games, and special recognition for teams or players that were better/exceptional, but if you show up and work hard for something I have no problem giving kids an “also ran” trophy for at least doing SOMETHING. There are so many kids that sit at home on their iPads or do nothing that encouraging a kid to come back next year with a stupid trophy that says “hey you did something” is fine by me.

      If the kid then takes it upon himself to want to WIN or be exceptional and gain awards and recognition for that, then even better! Even in “real” sports the first place team gets the biggest trophy, but everyone who plays the game get recognized in SOME way.

      Maybe it doesn’t mean much to some kids, but to some kids a stupid trophy means a lot, especially for the kids that DON’T grow up into professional sports starts, or ballerinas, or whatever else…

      The winners deserve the MOST credit, but I have just as many “participant” trophies as I do “1st place,” “2nd place,” etc. because sometimes you have a bad team, or bad game, or a bad whatever, I’m not AS proud of the “participant” trophies, but I’m more proud of them than I would be if I didn’t play the sport…

      1. I think she’s saying (and correct me if I’m wrong, dear Jen!) that the winning team doesn’t always “have it easy” – that they work hard and sacrifice too. There was an implication somewhere that winners all have natural ability.

        I think she might also be saying that we can differentiate between first place trophies and merit ribbons. I’d support that. I think you would too.

        1. that’s not what I got out of her post, but I, of course, have been known to have been wrong once or twice…

          If she’s saying that first place teams deserve a BETTER trophy than the last place one, then I agree. I, however, disagree that “we are telling kids that they are victorious at showing up and skilled at breathing” by giving the last place team a token of merit in the way of a “participant” reward in the way of a ribbon, medal, or even a small trophy…

          Being dedicated to something and working hard even if you’re not the best at it or on “the winning team” doesn’t mean you didn’t put in “enough” effort to “deserve” to be rewarded. Especially when we’re talking about children’s sports or activities.

          Like most things it comes down to how we as parents teach our children. If we teach them that they are just as “special” as the kids who came in first place just because they participated, then that’s shitty parenting.

          If we teach them that we’re proud of them for being committed to something and trying their hardest, but if they want to be the “best” at it, or on a winning team that they have to work harder than everybody else, or that the first place team deserves a better trophy or prize because of what they accomplished, but we’re proud of them for the medal or ribbon that they DID get, then I think that’s a better point than “only the winners should get medals, and every kids dreams might as well be crushed while they’re young and can deal with it better!!!”

          Not every kid who gets a trophy is under the impression that they are going to grow up to be a professional whatever, we still have a job to do as parents after the awards ceremony…

          Again: shitty parenting=shitty kids, and we have a lot of shitty kids in this country/world…

          1. I don’t know that not “winning” means crushing dreams. I got a crapload of rejection letters before I got the yes that put me on my career path. But my parents always said that they believed in me. There’s the rub I guess–the balance of encouraging our kids, lauding them for their efforts, and still teaching them that you don’t get the trophy every time.

            1. “She was instilling in her son the that if you have not earned the prize, you do not get the prize. That’s life, right? When should our kids learn this lesson exactly? When they’re young and resilient? Or when they’re graduating college and find themselves without job recommendations.”

              Sometimes trying hard IS enough. When did this discussion become so convoluted as to giving a kid a medal for participating in a sport is a bad lesson for life? I think through out the season you win games and you lose games, you try hard and are rewarded, and you don’t try so hard and are still rewarded sometimes. No one is saying (at least I don’t think they are) that every kid deserves the same amount of credit for their efforts whether they “won the championship” or just “played the sport.”

              There are many parallels in life that have nothing to do with actually receiving a trophy that you learn in sports, or a completive endeavor that are just as valid as receiving a trophy at the end of the season…

              Not everyone can be the star of the team, but that doesn’t mean that role players aren’t needed and shouldn’t be rewarded. Likewise not every kid is going to get into Harvard and become a doctor, life needs waiters, middle management, street cleaners and everything else it takes to make the world go round. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t “reward” them for just being good at what makes them happy, or telling them that not everyone can be the star-whatever.

              I think we’re defecting a lot of blame onto an idea that’s just trying to be nice to all the kids that participate in something because we as parents don’t have the heart to say “You know what Sage, I’m so happy you like gymnastics, but you’re not very good at it.”

              No one wants to be honest with their kids like that so we leave it to “life” to teach them the hard lessons, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be proud of them for trying, or for not being the “best”.

              We’ve been raised to believe that we can be anything we want to be if we just work hard enough at it, and that’s not always true.

              And honestly, just because Sage is pretty terrible at gymnastics, it doesn’t mean I’m less proud of her, or I want her to be less proud of herself just because she isn’t “first place”… Let the best kids be rewarded more/separately, that’s fine, but I am proud of her and want her to be proud of herself for the hard work that she did put into it… Even if it’s just a token medal and a round of applause in front of her friends.

            2. I’ve learned a lot in my “not winning” moments. When I’ve been passed over for a job, whenever possible, I’ve talked to recruiters to ask “what could I have done differently” or “what WERE they looking for?” I’ve gotten a lot of very useful feedback for future interviews.

              On another vent, I’ve submitted fiction manuscripts to literary agents and gotten “thanks but no thanks” responses that have also included valuable “here’s what I’d do differently” comments in them. Sometimes part of not succeeding is learning what we could do to change a failure (or perhaps just a non-win) into a future success.

          2. I think we’re assuming kids are idiots. Even at five they can spot who is good at what. I just asked my six y/o “What’s one thing you’re good at? What’s one thing you’re not so great at? What’s one thing you want to be better at?” All answers were spot on. No trophy is going to warp her perception or give her an inflated sense of accomplishment. A trophy that says ” Hey, thanks for being part of the season and trying” is not a threat. Neither are my daily “You are awesome, a good person, and special” pep talks that put smile on my pretty shy kid’s face. Because I know she needs that. My younger kid doesn’t need pep talks right now. She was born thinking she rules the universe and needs “Calm down and consider others but yes, you rock” reminders. Rather than obey these constructed theories about patenting why not have a little confidence and respond to what we know our individual kids need? One size fits all patenting is ingetenyly flawed.

            1. Liz, I wrote my last response quickly (there’s a soccer game on) and feel like I wan’t maybe clear on my point.

              My point is that we’re laying the blame of entitlement in our children on the coaches or organizers of the events, but the whole time we’re the ones as parents whom are telling them that they’r special, and that they can do anything they put their minds to.

              I think that’s a fallacy. We as parents need to curtail some of the expectations we put on our children, and we need to be honest with ourselves as much as we need to be honest with them. We’re (and by “we” I don’t mean you and I, I mean “we” in general) doing our kid a disservice if we’re telling them they can be anything they want to be, and then letting life “crush their dreams” later for us.

              Im point is and continues to be that we have a job as a parent to help our children grow into what kinds of kid and adults we want them to be. It’s not the coaches fault for giving everyone a ribbon, it’s our fault for not having the courage to say, “you know what? that kid is better at sports than you are” or “that kid is better at chess than you are” or whatever. We’re blaming society for raising entitled children yet we soothe them to sleep at night telling them how special they are (because they are) but not telling them that it’s not always about being the best at everything, but being the best person they can be.

              I think we have wonderful, special children because we try to be wonderful, special parents, I don’t think it’s because they got a trophy for gymnastics…

      2. Nate,

        They deserve a pat on the back, not a trophy. My team recognized the teams they played with handshakes and wishes of “good game” after each game, just like the pros do. We coaches congratulated the other coaches for their teams’ hard work and shook their players’ hands.

        But my team came from behind with a man down to win a tournament, and they managed to win their division of the State Cup after losing much of the team to injuries. Everybody worked hard. Our team won. The recognition goes to all the kids, but the trophy goes to the winner.

        Besides, if every kid on every team got a trophy in U-13 soccer, the kids would think it’s ridiculous — even the ones who didn’t win first place.

  17. tbh, I don’t really get the point that you should even praise your kids for participating. Or reward them for it.

    Since when did praise become something that NEEDS to be given in order to have your child function?

    Granted, I’m not a parent myself, and I don’t know how things work with really young children, but certainly when kids grow older….shouldn’t praise come for something that they did….good?
    My parents were firm believers that if you did a sport, you should also participate with competitions.
    And you know what, I got told I did a good job when I beat myself. Not others. Because I wouldn’t beat those, we all knew that, so that wasn’t important. But when I improved my own time they would tell me I did a good job.
    Or when I managed to get a ok grade on a course I wasn’t that good in, or scored an 9 or 10 in one I was good in.

    But for just…being there? What is so…special about that? I mean, we don’t get praise from our boss when we show up for work do we? We get praise when we finish the project succesfully.
    Praise and reward should be earned, and it should be something worthwhile. And things get worthwhile when they don’t come easy.

    1. I think one can praise for effort, whether or not it yields a win. Praise is a motivator–but as most parents learn, it’s best to praise the verb and not the noun. (You say “wow, you worked hard on that” instead of “that picture is perfect!”)

      My daughter used to have issues with doing her schoolwork quickly–but with errors–because she wanted to be first to finish. We would say, “you didn’t try your best, did you? You did it quickly.” And she would agree, and work harder. I can assure you she was far more proud at seeing the result of a good effort than being first. And when we praised her for working harder, I know it was more meaningful than saying “good job!” at the crappy line drawing she scribbled in four seconds.

  18. I have a friend in her mid-20’s who I used to work with. She had the “special” narrative growing up. She’s finding this whole being a grown-up on her own thing difficult because the world’s narrative isn’t meshing with what she was raised with. When I posted this speech on my Facebook timeline, this was her comment: “I wish someone had told me this at my high school graduation. Or my college graduation. Or both, I could have used the reiteration.”

    Reality is a harsh mistress.

  19. I generally agree with Nate. My two oldest play in different Little League “leagues” (based on age/ability). There is a medal ceremony at the end for everyone. It’s only within each team and it’s a way for the coach to recognize the specific efforts of each child and, more importantly, for each child to support their teammates. My kids don’t care at all about the actual medals. They do care that they worked hard, and my oldest cares whether the team won and whether they will win the championship. None of their friends/teammates care about the medals/trophies either. So maybe the real lessons happen outside one 2 hour period of team awards ceremony and are taught throughout the season. There is a danger in saying winning means nothing but there’s still a danger in saying winning means everything too. Especially among young children who are still learning how to even play a sport. If a $1 medal is what it takes for some kids to get involved, learn a new skill, and become physically active, then maybe overall the cost is worth it.

    1. That’s beautifully put, MLB, thank you. You’re right – winning is neither nothing nor everything. And I totally agree that there’s a difference between a 5 year old and a graduating senior.

  20. Liz- I’m glad you mentioned how this applies in the blogger world as well. After 5+ years of blogging in a naive bubble, I guess, I am alarmed that people can buy Twitter followers, inflate Klout score, etc. (I guess that I’ve been living under a rock). It’s sort of embarrassing what’s become of the bloggers- and I wonder if we’ve all “jumped the shark.” And there’s a lot of false modesty- esp. on Twitter- “me? really? (blushing)” type comments. A real need, as adults, to be publicly recognized/praised/followed, that seems sad sometimes. Maybe we didn’t get enough prizes and trophies as kids? 😉

    1. Or maybe we (“we”) want the A, but not the effort it takes to get it. I say, too many trophies as kids (heh)

  21. I have been sitting with my thoughts for most of the morning on this post. Mostly because there are so many and I was trying to condense, etc.

    Basically, in a nutshell – I forwarded this post to the principal of our school with the following quote ‘This is a PROFOUND post and so dead on……our kids are special to US each individually and it is up to them to declare themselves special otherwise.”

    Of course, it is our job to allow them to explore and try and touch and feel and mess up until they find what they love and WANT to do better than anything else.

    If we don’t let them do that – we are only creating a monster – who very much like your intern believe they deserve something for just plain old being them.

    Forget trophies and tshirts, we must teach our kids PRIDE. My son is a competitive athlete – he shows up every weekend to tournaments not knowing how much playtime he will earn and if his team will win or lose, but he does know that he is going to leave there feeling PRIDE in putting it all out there. Often, he learns more from the losses. For example, he learns what he needs to do differently next time.

    A lesson that follows him into life….He asked a fellow class mate to partner with him on a project and the kid answered with ‘you’re just a jock, I want to get a good grade.’ Well, my son had to hear no more. He went without a partner and found himself earning a 100% on the project.

    No trophy necessary. Just pride and the realization that hard work and effort make him feel special inside.

    Thanks Liz.

  22. So many others have said what I wanted to say, I sort of feel like I just need to sit back and say “what he/she said” (how lazy of me!)

    I think the biggest thing my kids have gotten from gymnastics this year is learning that not everyone wins. When the competition teams have gone to meets, they post the results up and my daughter has followed it all year. She’s seen that at meets, some girls placed better than others and some didn’t place at the top at all. We’ve had discussions with both kids that trophies are only given to the top competitors. We tell them to try their hardest to do their best. Period.

    As a former manager, I dealt with so many people (some of them my age or older) who expected me to pat them on the back just for showing up to work everyday. When it came time for annual reviews, they didn’t understand why I didn’t classify “great attendance” as “exceeds expectations”. No, no…you see…I EXPECT you to show up and do your job. If you want to exceed that expectation, do a GREAT job.

  23. Some of the coolest, smartest, strongest, awesomest people I know had a little bit of struggle in their lives. Sometimes a lot.

    I’m not going to try to recreate or even create adverse circumstances for my kids just to teach them a lesson, but there’s something to say about kids having to work hard to get something.

    Case in point: My daughter’s first swim meet they all got ribbons marked “participant;” she was elated. Kids who won 1/2/3 got a prize. What’s so wrong with that?

    1. nothing is wrong with that! Congrats to her for working hard at something and being acknowledged for it even though she didn’t “win”!

    2. Kristen,

      Honestly curious why you feel so differently between a ribbon for your daughter’s participation in swimming verse a trophy for your son’s (i’m assuming non-competitive, as most are at this age) coach/pitch baseball participation?

      1. Hey Kristen — Yeah, it was actually competitive in such that there were playoffs and then finals. My son’s team lost at some point in the middle of the playoffs.

        I’m actually not sure what makes my head spin more: The fact that they had playoffs OR that the parents wanted to get my kid’s team (the losers – heh) trophies (which we’d have to pay for ourselves, btw).

        And really, it’s not about the money. But why not a t-shirt that says “Yay first season of baseball!” (cooler, of course) or a little ribbon that said “first season yay!” — to me, a trophy says winning and they didn’t.

        1. Ok. I do think the problem there is that there were playoffs for 5 and 6 year olds. That is crazy. I live in the uber-competitive land of Northern Virginia and even the leagues around here don’t do that for baseball. Having said that – the “winner” of anything involving baseball for that age child has more to do with luck than skill. To me, a trophy, tshirt, medal, ribbon, whatever…. it’s all rewarding effort – and the goal at this age should be effort, therefore they all should “win”.

          1. 5-year-olds and trophies???

            OK, let’s rewind a bit… in ’50 there were no soccer leagues for 5-year old, no soft ball leagues with play offs for 4 year olds and certainly no trophies for anybody not competing at national level. Certainly nothing for under 9. The kids played self-organized in their own streets, where true performance (as brutal as it sounds) was only merit. No trophies. No participation ribbons. Nothing. Just pure joy and effort and natural talent. Whoever was EXCEPTIONALLY good on its own, was to get ahead at that particular activity. It sounds Darwinian and overly harsh, but it is reality how we as humans operate. And without that early feedback loop, we get sidetracked into whatever is desirable (from parent or society perspective) and never discover true strengths.

            Modern organized leagues of any kind (not only sports, anything) are shitty replacement of natural process in which kids learn their own strengths and find their own resilience without any participation ribbons. And as long as we, parents, demand participation ribbons for just showing up and trophies for effort (even with no result whatsoever), the coaches are going to comply, and the kids are going to think that is natural. That participation alone is to receive recognition. Kids participation is to be rewarded by the feel-good feeling that comes from inside them, as they are playing the sport/activity they enjoy. If they are not enjoying it on their own, and participation is not reward on its own, then why are parents dragging them into it?

            1. First of all, I don’t think any parents are “demanding” ribbons – and 2nd of all, what the hell is the big deal? Participation ribbons and trophies are not the cause of the decline of society.

              I’d love to see your data or support that modern organized sports leagues are detrimental to a child’s development. I know scores of people who would disagree. After all, if they were not desired so greatly there wouldn’t be so many of them. Supply/demand.

              There are tangible rewards for many things in a child’s life that are not intrinsically motivated. Shall we get rid of all of them? Also, to address your point of if a child needs to be motivated by a trophy, why is the parent “dragging them into it”. There is much to learn in the world of organized sports, beyond the sport itself – and sometimes giving a trophy or a ribbon of whatever-the-hell you want rewards the lessons learned above the sport itself.

            2. I’ll allow Marija to answer this herself, but as to the “demanding” of ribbons by parents for every kid–yes, in fact they are. Several commenters here have even offered their own stories about it including Motherhood Uncensored.

            3. I can only speak from my experience – which only goes to age 8, but includes about 8 seasons (fall/spring, 2 kids, 3 year old has yet to begin) and i’ve never seen anyone demand a trophy – some seasons they do it and some they don’t. No big deal.

            4. Well one thing I’ve learned: There’s a lot of different kinds of parents out there, in a lot of different kinds of communities. Sounds like you have a nice one.

              I appreciate your input and your passion for the topic, Kristen, even if we don’t agree on everything.

            5. Hot topic, it seems we run out of the space for replies.

              As for adults “demanding”, well that was my overstatement – but the feedback loop is still the same. There was no “need” for tweeter – yet it caught on immediately. So, trophies started somewhere and are growing into “expected” category – and market is delivering and fuelling more desirability. Trophies themselves are not the big deal, it is the whole message behind it, that each little effort, each little step is special and should be celebrated by all and be seen by all. Is it big deal that kid showed up for soccer practice? How about getting out of bed? Not that kids should not be encouraged and praised (no, I’m not THAT bad), but there is a place and time for each occasion. Getting out of bed will get you warm breakfast (otherwise, it is just getting cold by virtue of entropy). Playing soccer with your friends will get you ice cream (or whatever healthy option is one’s choosing) to restore all that sweat. And so on. If we teach kids from young age that they are special and each and every little thing is deserving of prize and public recognition, then we rob them of the exhilaration of doing something for the sake of doing it, in their own private world. Because, yes, it gradually sets precedence. And when whole society is behaving like that, there is no escaping it (as someone already pointed out, entitlement seems to be running in society, this is not the parenting problem alone – just look at the failed communist countries, being “entitled” to job brought no improvement).

              Yes, there is plenty of research already that giving (or promising) someone a prize for any task they find pleasurable, turns that task into chore. It is bad for anybody’s emotional well-being.

            6. Lets just remember that supply/demand is driven by ADULTS, not by kids. And no, I have no data or research, I’m just your average mother that sees 5-year olds going to hockey lessons at 6am on cold January or being driven an hour away for tennis lessons. And been to plenty of recitals in which 4 year old looked lost on the stage. What is the big deal putting kids into stage to “show” their progress to whole world? I’m all for encouraging kids to challenge themselves, but all these trophies and ribbons look more like something borne out of wrong idea to begin with (putting 20 5-year-olds into team), and completely driven by parent agenda (to have kids learn good skills). No kids in my time asked for trophies, because, well, nobody organized me at 5 years. I was just a kid. With plenty of play and interaction and no organized competition of any kind. We used to learn the skills with light adult oversight, but we were free to make up the rules of the game, and decide if it was penalty or not and get the teams going based on current supply of kids. Today there are adult coaches, adult referees, adult cheerleaders, adults get to say who goes in which team and who was at fault. In my simple mind, that translates into less development opportunities for kids, not more. I’m not saying that organized sports leagues are detrimental to a child’s development – I’m saying we are not better off with it compared to old-age (now sounding like my grandmother) kid-led and kid-organized play. And with organized leagues, comes the question of participation, effort, adult involvement, prizes, and at the end – winners and losers for the season. As part of kids’ everyday play loosing one day means nothing, as you get next match tomorrow. And day after. And there is no set team, so nobody is keeping any long term score. So kids grow bit by bit, taking losses as they are – just one bad day.

              As for efficiency of supply/demand – well, we still have pop drinks all over and selling more of them then milk – even tough it is bad for the health and costs more. Popularity does not equal benefits.

  24. One thing that my wife (who has a degree in Marriage, Family, and Human Development) has pounded into my head from the beginning is that we need to praise our daughter for how hard she works, rather than for how smart she is, or how pretty she is. The idea being that if you praise a sort of static quality, that kid either won’t bother to develop anything, or will be crushed in the inevitable event that something is really difficult or when someone else is smarter or prettier. But to emphasize hard work…a kid could reach any heights recognizing that that is their best quality.

    It’s funny, though, to catch myself in the middle of a sentence, like “Oh, that was so good, honey! You’re so smart! I mean. Well, not smart, I mean, you’re smart enough, but what I’m trying to say is that you worked so hard to say your abc’s.” You’ve really got to know what you’re saying ahead of time.

  25. I came here just for the title of the post. 🙂

    I was a bit late graduating from college, so I recently graduated with people almost 10 years younger than me. I hated the self-entitled attitudes of the other underclassmen. How they could skip lectures and labs and beg to make them up, all with dog-ate-my-homework excuses. Or turn in papers late or demand that they receive a higher grade for work done. I could tell when I met with professors that they had adopted a defensive attitude to deal with assholes like that. I strove to show them that I worked for what I got and I wasn’t going to beg for higher grades, I was going to work for them.

    God help her if my daughter adopts a self-entitled attitude.

    1. A lot of that is just being a snot-nosed 18-21 year old. We all go through some of that. It’s called growing up. Every generation always the young ones “don’t know the value of hard work.” of course they don’t. Not yet, anyway.

  26. It seems as if parents are trying to out parent each other with these fear-based constructs. No amount of trophies or pats on the back will create an entitled child. Don’t be silly. Entitled parents pass on that trait…or flaw. There is nothing wrong with a token for participation as learning to show up is a life skill. Lazy interns and half-assing college students have always existed. Model the behaviors you want your children, who are indeed all very special and have the ability to change lives, to exhibit. I was told I was special, smart, unique, etc. from teachers and the positive sentiments encouraged me to live up to them and always do my best. We’re so afraid of raising failures, aren’t we? Children know when they’re being falsely praised. Their BS-o-meters are quite advanced. I’d rather instill a foundation of teamwork than a win/lose mentality that breeds an over competitive nature (creating a happiness model that depends on one’s rank in comparison to the other) . We’re raising individual humam beings, not products.

      1. Just wanted to say how much I’ve enjoyed everything Nate’s written in this thread.

        My experience is in music, not sports, but there are many similarities. When I have my students perform in a violin recital I remind the audience how hard it is simply to step on that stage in front of a crowd, regardless of how they do. That is worthy of recognition, even though some kids do better than others.

        1. I agree. The award I got for “most improved” in band meant so much more to me than any of my academic awards, because those came easily, and playing an instrument was HARD. I am a perfectionist type, too, and I wanted to quit as soon I realized it didn’t come easy to me. If my parents had said, “Maybe music just isn’t your thing, honey,” I never would’ve felt the satisfaction of working my butt off and getting better. I knew I wouldn’t be playing in any professional orchestras, and my career field is in engineering, but the most important thing I learned in school is that I can work hard and get better at something, and it feels good!

          1. That’s such an important lesson. I believe part of finding out what you are good at comes from perseverance, as you learned. It’s why I didn’t let my daughter quit ballet one year. Like you (and uh…me) she wants to be great at things and can get discouraged if she’s not the best. I now see her work harder towards getting better at things, having learned the lesson that you don’t always start good at something.

            I think two ideas are getting conflated here from the original commenter – the idea of overpraise/awards/trophies that are unearned and handed out like candy; and the idea of finding what you are good at.

            In NurtureShock (I know, I keep quoting it) problem comes from parents who tell kids you are the best EVER and they learn to seek the praise, not the achievement or the improvement. Kids who are overpraised, overtrophied, are statistically more likely to cheat on tests, among other things. The A is everything. That is what happens with a nation that’s afraid of raising failures. Of hurting “self-esteem.” The trophies are the symptom, not the problem.

            Who is it that famously said there is no learning without failure?

    1. I don’t think there’s anything fear-based here. And I’ve always believed there’s no one way to pattern. I think it’s okay to take another look at some things we chalk up to “parenting instinct” and acknowledge that it’s a cultural construct and then decide from there whether to accept it or change it.

      I love your notion of instilling a foundation of teamwork. And obviously I would hope my children’s happiness does not rely on winning, but that they find satisfaction when they triumph over adversity through effort, whatever that may look like.

  27. Love this post! Definitely things to keep in mind before I embark on parenthood. Plus, all of those little damn trophies really clutter the place up. Although I did have fun reusing mine in college as holiday gifts…

  28. Where is the evidence, anecdotal or factual, that purports to claim that the previous generation of parents have been overcoddling their children? It seems we’ve been painting this image of parents with a bit too broad of a paintbrush. I’ve seen this in other forms as well, such as “Nurture Shock” or “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” where self-esteem seems to be put on trial. “You Are Not So Special” seems more like David McCullough’s attempt at a counter punch to this notion that children are being overcoddled, rather than any sort of meaningful parenting model or even valuable speech. I watched the 12 minutes and again, it seems based on anecdote and rumor, rather than reality or for that matter–gulp–data. I would caution any parent, or English teacher, for that matter, to hold back on anything that makes their child feel special. There’s plenty of reasons for your children not to feel special out there .

    1. Hi Cooper. I would give David McCullough the benefit of the doubt and presume that he is speaking from his own experience with students, and not some sort of rumor “out there.”

      As for your questions as to whether there is anecdotal or factual about coddling, well, yes. There is. On the anecdotal side, just google it. I hear over and over from teachers who have been teaching for years, that there is a huge increase in student entitlement and parental involvement today (some of them are on this comment thread).

      Other resources:
      *Nurture Shock is a research-based book, so it presents lots of statistics.
      *There’s a major cover story in the Atlantic Monthly from last year that’s quite comprehensive.
      *There’s the NY Times article which offers statistics on the delay of adulthood and independence of 20-somethings today.
      * Hyper Parents, Coddled Kids is a documentary about some of the issues.

      I want to be clear though, in part we’re coming to the same conclusion: I want my children to feel important to me (you can call it special) and they are. But there’s a difference between kids knowing they are special to us–or even a teacher–and believing that their “specialness” trumps hard work or achievement. That’s what I got from the speech.

      Thanks for your comment.

      1. “Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.” -Socrates

        The “kids these days” conversation has been going on forever. Adolescence has been prolonged because our society’s values have changed. People don’t get married right out of college anymore, many can’t find jobs out of college, we live in a debt-acceptance world where college students can’t afford to live on their own in many cases. Adulthood has been delayed for a number of reasons but it isn’t due a brush stoke increase of entitlement due to over coddling and too many trophies.

        I actually think that this “your child is not special” phenomenon is actually a new state of coddling that in essence fears being out of control of a child’s natural walk into adulthood. A person will realize one day that they are not good at everything. This will happen no matter no matter how many trophy ceremonies they haven’t attended. It’s part of life. It may be happening later because everything is happening later as we’re figuring out ways to extend our lives, but this is nothing to panic over and create arbitrary parenting constructs out of. Keep patting your kids on the back for good effort, encouraging them to give it their all. It won’t destroy them. We need to seriously get a grip.

        1. I tend to disagree. Yes, in every generation there is the “kids these days” notion, but I have seen what an “entitlement” mindset has perpetuated the expectation of reward for mediocrity, both within our extended family and in the workplace. I personally know people raised in the younger generation who have walked out of high school expecting to be handed some great job for no reason other than they feel like they deserve it…people who are pushing 30 and still live at home because they have made no genuine effort to actually make a living and earn a wage that will allow them to support themselves. I’ve had employees who stand with their hands out every year expecting some great raise or bonus just because they did me the favor of rolling out of bed and showing up. I’ve seen it across many employers and employees.

          Why not stress to our kids that some things in life need to be earned and not just handed out?

          1. We are not facing an epidemic that will be cured by being conscious of trophy ceremonies for kids or a “you are not special” mantra. The only thing that will help children develop a sense of maturity at a rate that their parents deem acceptable is to model it. Even then, children develop at their own speeds. Adults develop at their own speeds. Living at home vs. living in a house is no indicator of personal development as we’ve seen on shows such as Real Housewives of Whatever City.

            There are always people who feel entitled…much of the entitlement that post-college adults have is actually taught to them from a young age. They believed that those AP courses and 4 years of university education would give them a job because that’s what has been crammed down their throats from a young age (by parents, career counselors, etc.). One of the best things a parent can do, in my humble opinion, is to not pay for college. Let your kid work their way through so that they value their education and major in something 1) they either truly care about or 2) that will land them a job. Maybe they’ll decide they aren’t ready. Fine. Cut the apron strings at an appropriate time and you probably won’t have a 30-year old living at home.

            Of course it’s great to teach kids that many things in life will have to be earned- no one is arguing against that. I just don’t believe for one second this lesson can be taught- it is modeled and experienced. Skipping an award’s ceremony, lectures on hard work…this will become real for kids when their noses are pressed against the realities of life. Some cheap trophy isn’t what is going to create a Paris Hilton larger than life case of the “I deserves.”

          2. Yes, exactly! My Brother-in-law is a perfect example. He finally got a job and now complains that the hours/pay isn’t enough. He was given a FREE car and complained about its problems. He thinks he should simply land a great job simply because he exists (no college degree, no solid work experience, no marketable skills, and not even a good work ethic) and wants to make $12-15 an hour and not have to work hard. This is literally the way he talks. He’s the youngest of 3 and thinks he’s special. He’s also 25 and living at home, not paying rent or really contributing anything to the family at all.

  29. We once heard a very experienced headmaster speak to a group of young parents and he warned us that at school our children would find out what they were NOT good at. At home lavished with praise they would feel good at everything. At school they would learn that different children have different abilities and while for us parents that may be hard to swallow, for kids it is just a normal step out into the world. Now with two out of high school I see that those were very wise words.

    1. Exactly. This is just life! Kids are not dummies. We know our parents think we’re the bees knees and that feels good in a world where harsh realities are plentiful. There is nothing a parent can do to prepare a child for that. What we can be is a refuge, a place for honesty and encouragement. Skipping an award’s ceremony, in my opinion teaches a bit of self-righteousness IMO. Learning to receive gracefully and celebrate in community is also a skill. The trophies were a gift from the organizers. They appreciated the kids being there. Learn to accept and say “thank you” then have a convo about who was REALLY the best at home if you must. 🙂 the kids already know.

    2. Very very wise, Grown + Flown!

      And I’d imagine in part, he was saying, “Please don’t call us every time your child gets a B or doesn’t make the swim team.”

  30. I know I’ve written so much and am getting annoying but I find this “your child is not special” idea so ridiculous. We keep talking about learning the value of hard work…this conversation is so outdated. I’m not teaching my kids about hard work or that they aren’t deserving- I’m teaching them about smart work, being creative, knowing themselves and what makes them unique so that they can find a path that is truly fulfilling that that serves the world. This has nothing to do with competition, winning, or entitlement.

    We are raising a generation of kids that need to know how to create their own jobs, like so many bloggers have done. We don’t want them to fall into the comparison trap that so many adults live (and drown) in every single day trying to outdo the Joneses.

    It’s not about being rewarded. The competition is with oneself, not the rest of the world. One has to believe they are special so that they can find out what makes them tick and how that fits into serving the greater community…that’s the point of it all, isn’t it? Meshing your individual passion with service so that you are an integrated member of society and fulfilled human being? When you reach this level of human development, trophies, while appreciated, mean less and less. The journey toward this mindset though will be filled with entitlement, the search for shortcuts, whining, feelings of bitterness…we’ve all walked it! Why deny our kids? Why can’t we just let them be children and develop naturally?

  31. I had enough to say on this topic that I wrote my own post. Suffice it to say that we’re instilling David McCullough’s message in our own kids, along with unfailing, unflinching love and confidence. They’re not mutually exclusive.

  32. Think about your incredible post-and this courageous Wellesley HS address- on the national level: There are those among us who talk about “American Exceptionalism” as if it were due to our country. Why? Just because. Just because…Another medal on our collective necks, another reason to deny the rest of the world. We are, as Americans, not special. We must earn the privilege again and again and again. Just like our kids. Be exceptional not because it fits on our resume, but because it moves the world. The whole extraordinary world.

  33. This kind of ties in with a recent talk my 11 y/o and I had after ballet recital. From the barre demonstration to the actual performance,the dancers were sloppy and off-beat, even lost on stage . The rented HS auditorium was filled with mostly rapturous parents, and me, agape, and honestly kinda furious that the teachers would put this on stage as the culmination of what their pupils could do.

    In the car I told her I wanted her to think about the difference between creating and consuming, and while it might sound trite, I meant something different than what she might think

    I meant that there are lots of ways to “consume” and that includes the phenomenon of expecting to be rewarded for consuming time, for just showing up. She could spend five hours a week in class and walk out the door truly no better a dancer than when she walked in , because she was believing that going through the motions would entitle her to be applauded on stage at the end of the year.

    Or she could use that time, and the teacher’s time and the ritual to create herself, bit by bit. She could walk in and out that door all year and never change or she could imagine what the better dancer version of herself might be, and create it.

    Her creation of herself, her pride and focus in mastery of even tiny things mean so so much more to me than any automatic promotion. But I feel very much in the minority in our high-income competitive suburban area, where a child’s crammed schedule is a badge of pride & it seems like the child’s main responsibility in all these activities is simply to not be late, but even that can be negotiated by a persistent parent.

    1. This is an amazing comment, thank you so much. Your daughter is lucky to have such a thoughtful mom.

  34. I’m a high school English teacher and I have to agree that the sense of entitlement feels epidemic. At my school of 3,000 students we had 12 valedictorians this year. And I get a lot of flack for only having 2-3 A’s per class period. An “A” used to mean exceptional and “B” meant above average. I have so many students earning C’s and D’s today that believe they should be getting A’s and B’s because they’re there 90% of the time (not even that great of attendance!)… I loved this guy’s speech, and I do believe it came from a place of caring for his students’ futures.

    1. I appreciate your perspective Michelle, as an educator. But wait…12 valedictorians? How does that happen?

  35. Brilliance. As always, Liz, you nail it. Reminds me of a fabulous scene in The Incredibles where children earn trophies for being average……

  36. lord, it all comes back to “the incredibles.” Remember that the bad guy in that movie doesn’t have a superhero power, so he figures out how to invent one so that EVERYONE can have a superpower. He says “if everyone has a superpower, then no one is super.” Way to level the playing field, eh? Yes, I think giving a 4 or 5 or even 6 year old a medal or shiny object (or hell, a cupcake) for doing a good job, trying hard, showing up to whatever it is, soccer or knitting or chess, that’s great. But by age 7, kids know who tries, who doesn’t, if they won or lost, and they know when the trophy is just plastic B.S., versus something they earned, as a team or an individual. We can use “trophy” here metaphorically, right, to stand in for all those things we think are building self-esteem but are perhaps just teaching our kids that what matters is the doodad at the end, not the journey to get there. It’s not too much of a stretch to go from trophies to kids snorting adderall so they can get GOOD GRADES and they are GOOD KIDS and will go to GOOD SCHOOLS or die trying. These are kids who have been taught that what matters is only the product, not the process. And while yes, product matters, what matters too is knowing how to do the work you need to do to get there. I’m an English professor and I can’t tell you how many parents and students have emailed me to say “gosh, well, he tried…” or “he didn’t mean to plagiarize, he’s just under so much pressure…” and etc etc etc. Your kid is hte apple of your eye, granted, but just showing up (sorry Woody) isn’t enough to win the big prize. Of course, MY kids are geniuses, so they will be getting all the shiny objects, always, or their teachers will be hearing from me, yessirree! 🙂

    1. Thanks Deborah, wow who knew it all came back to Pixar?

      I’m finding it fascinating that there’s a lot of disagreement and nuance on this thread, but that the teachers who have chimed in are all in lock-step agreement with similar stories.

  37. I absolutely LOVE this post. This is an important message. We need to teach our kids that life is not flippin’ Disney World, and that they are not going to breeze through it based on the fact that they exist and are therefore entitled to an easy street filled with flowers and sunshine. I have friends whose goal is to make their kids’ childhood as “magical” as possible and it seems to me that’s just setting them up for big-time disappointment.
    Achievement takes talent, hard work, perseverance…the latter two things you aren’t born with. I want my kids to know that life is HARD, but there is so much beauty in it, so much to be learned from the hard things as well as the fun things. That they are amazing people, but that to do amazing things they are gonna have to put their backs into it. Self-esteem is good, but it needs to be in combination with self-awareness. My daughter loves gymnastics but she’s never going to be a champion gymnast. And that’s ok. You won’t see me throwing a fit if she doesn’t get a medal for “participation”.

    1. Oof you bring back the painful memories of a gym teacher in fourth grade saying “you will not be in the Olympics for gymnastics.” You know what? He was right. It pushed me more towards dance where I excelled right through college. I love your line about self-esteem plus self-awareness. Thanks Jenny.

  38. Great post and the links are good too! I’m going to show this to my kids (freshman and senior in college). I think this generation of parents, which I’m a part of, is afraid for their kids to make mistakes, but making mistakes is how they’re going to grow and learn.

  39. Dear hearts: Consider this, please: Every single one of us is a one-of-a-kind work of art, promised this life since the beginning of time… and that Artist which began time could never have made a single mistake! So how can there be a hierarchy of specialness in this wonder of life in which we all share? Doesn’t that make us all gifts of the Creation with gifts to give It in return for the life It gave us? Thank you for this moment.

  40. I grew up in a blue-collar family in the ’70s. I was raised to work my butt off. My dad would often quote my grandmother as saying, “do the very best you can.” And I did. No one did my homework for me. If I won something, it was based on my own merit. And this is how I am raising my own kids, ages 11 and 13.

    I know moms of middle school children who do their kids’ projects for them, but that is certainly not the case in my house. I tell my children, “I will help you with anything you need, but I won’t do it for you.” Period.

    Obviously, these parents’ own insecurities come into play here. They want their kids to be the best, in part so they can be the best vicariously. They don’t seem to realize that they are teaching their kids the damaging lesson that greatness will be handed to them on a silver platter…or in the “A” they get on the science project Mom did for them.

    These same moms show up on college campuses and demand to know why the professor didn’t give their child the grade he or she “deserved.” Seriously? Yes, seriously.

    At what point do you step back and let your children fight their own battles and experience their own losses? I’m no expert, but I’m guessing freshman year of college is far too late.

    1. I still remember the first day of 3 year-old preschool, where the kids’ summer artwork projects (a collage of some sort) that we were told to bring in, were hanging on the wall. I’d say more than 50% of them were entirely done by the parents. God forbid their children don’t get the glue stick on perfectly WHEN THEY’RE THREE.

      Fortunately, as the year went on, the art work got messier. So not just did the kids grow, the parents did too.

  41. All this talk about being special… I think the point of the original video and professor’s speech was to point out that we forgot to feel grateful because we are so immersed in our own “special-ness”. Talking about giving recognition for participation? How about being grateful for having a ball and a field and time to play to begin with? Sharing and belonging be damned, we NEED(?) our kids to be special in our family, in out community, in our schools.
    Not in my house. Thank you professor, for reminding that being humble has its place even in out-do-thy-neighbour society of ours.

    1. Excellent point. There was a lot of richness to the speech. I focused on one aspect, but the gist was to be grateful for what you do have and go do something extraordinary with it. That’s why I found it inspirational and not negative at all.

  42. I want my girls to believe that they are capable of anything but to be prepared to work their asses off to get it. To know in their hearts that it takes effort to acquire knowledge, time to build skill and that talent is only the start. It took me many painful years to learn that, and it kills me to think of all the time I wasted not trying very hard.

    A couple of years ago I heard Cindy Solomon speak on creating a culture of courage in organizations. She specifically addressed the Millenium generation, but her take was that this is the next generation of the work force and we need to figure out how to work with them. She described the same things you did: very high expectations for salary, a clear idea of what they will and will not do and a general feeling that they don’t want to work very hard or very long hours. She was pretty clear that we will be the ones who will change, not them. It’s a brave new world out there, and all our old fangled notions about working hard and earning your place are going out the window…

    1. I agree…partly. I have also written pieces about working with millenials and how senior management has to adapt as well. You can’t expect employees not to text, check Facebook or (ahem) update blog posts during the day. The terms are different. But I don’t imagine that complacency will ever be rewarded. And honestly, look at the brilliant, forward-thinking 20-something who’ve turned the tech world on its head, from Foursquare to Twitter to Facebook and beyond. They work their asses off. They just do it on different terms.

      Oops a little off topic. But a good one. Thanks for the tip – looking forward to looking up Cindy Solomon.

      1. We see it as complacency, a twenty-something entrepeneur might see it as deprioritizing something they don’t think is important. Our current language isn’t going to work for much longer, we going need a whole new vocabulary to be able to work together.

        There was a great storyline in the first season of Parenthood where Adam’s shoe company is bought by a 20-something skater dude who brings in a new culture that is reminiscent of the Twitter/Google/Facebook stories. Adam is frustrated because it doesn’t look like working to him, and in the end , it’s him who has to leave while the company carries on without him.

        1. I understand completely. However I’m at a loss for a new vocabulary for “I paid you to do an assignment, which you accepted, and then you didn’t do it.”

  43. Hi Liz,

    I’m so glad you posted this, thank you. His speech was nothing less than brilliant.

    As a homeschooling mom I often encounter the continuous celebration of ‘accolades’ from parents of children that attend conventional school, which often makes me think about how these children are perceiving their world.

    The real world doesn’t care about whether you had a 4.0 or a 2.5 GPA or whether you had 10 or 25 trophies. The real world simply needs emotionally intelligent individuals that can think for themselves. So, yes, I agree that my three daughters are special ‘to me’ and that’s quite enough. I’m doing my best to instill compassion and awareness in their ‘selves’ in order for them to function decently in the world.

    A book I highly recommend is: “Nurture Shock” Read it. You will not regret it.


  44. Great lessons to be learned!
    I agree that we should not let our kids feel they are entitled all the time. They really have to earn their rewards, awards, accolades…
    So fitting that I read this post today coz I also shared our experience with our boy’s taekwondo achievements. There were moments that I am the one who feels he doesn’t deserve to be promoted yet because I expected more from him at the level he’s at.
    Another hard-hitting and eye-opening post! Love it!

    1. I think there’s a balance we’re all trying to figure out. We should totally be proud of the achievements our kids have and the hard work they’ve put in. But yeah, it’s hard when you know in your heart that he maybe didn’t do his best.

  45. I often feel so alone in NYC with these kinds of feelings. So glad to know you — a successful blogger no less (opposite of me) — has them too. Thank you. I feel a bit less discouraged about the way our society is plummeting into crazy self-centered trophy collecting “my kid is so absolutely amazing, so much so that i’d much rather talk about him and post pictures of him on Facebook and read comments about the pictures I post than actually spend five minutes getting down on the floor and doing sidewalk chalk with him” mode. I really hope these kinds of topics continue to gain momentum.

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