Why would I say that the cult of victimhood won’t make your kids happy? Well, let’s start with this. Have you ever had something bad happen in your life? Perhaps you were bullied as a child? Lost a parent or sibling? Suffered trauma? Perhaps you were fired from one or more jobs? Lost out on a badly wanted promotion? Got divorced? Had a terrible illness? First, welcome to the club of life, and second, congratulations; you made it through. Now, I’m not minimizing what you went through. I’m sure it was profoundly traumatic, but you still made it through. You made it through with scars, to be sure, but you made it.
The cult of victimhood won’t make your kids happy: Trauma should not be central to who we are.
There’s been a change, though, over the last couple of decades, one that has become particularly fashionable in the last few years. Suddenly, we’re not talking about making it through the pitfalls of life, but instead our conversation has flipped to how we can best stay wallowing in those pitfalls while at the same time declaring that the fact we’ve stepped in them has nothing to do with us. Now, it might not have had anything at all to do with us. If your dad got hit by a bus, it would hardly be your fault. However, we each get to choose how we react to trauma in our lives. We either deal with it or we let it control us, and now it seems it has become a trend to make our trauma our identity. We don’t seem to want to move on from trauma but rather place it at the core of who we are.
So the next question that naturally follows is: why is this phenomenon happening? Is this the progress of an ever-evolving society that is becoming aware of all the myriad injustices and trauma within and wishing to do something about them, or is it some form of regression? A collective retreat back into the safety of the collective mind, as it were, a safety blanket from which we seemingly will never have to peak out.
And why now? What has changed over the last decade in particular? What is really going on? I don’t much like Tik Tock or even Facebook, for that matter, but it sure gives you an idea of what a wide swath of people are thinking about. Looking at it, I notice that many young adults today are not talking about what they want to accomplish with their lives but instead are talking about who they are and, by extension, how they are or have been shaped by their internal trauma. Struggling with mental health has become a badge of honour.
First, let me say that I don’t think we should stigmatize anyone who is really suffering from a mental health issue. Of course not, but do we really need to go to the opposite extreme in that now every internal struggle we go through has to be posted on social media or talked about to the nth degree? Is what we feel more important than what we do? And if so, has that inversion helped young people find their place in the world or actively prevented them from doing so?
The cult of victimhood won’t make your kids happy: It started with the self-esteem movement.
I’m going to make a supposition, just anecdotal and based purely on my experience watching parents and their kids over the last 30 years or more. And I’m going to focus on what I watched happen from 2004 onward, when I first started my business. At that point, we were starting to see the rise of the self-esteem movement. New research was popping up describing how important it was for us to feel good about ourselves and how our positivity would then reflect outward, making us all much happier people.
In the 1990s, a US psychotherapist named Nathaniel Brandon published a paper that argued that good self-esteem was the key to a successful life, and that idea went viral quickly afterwards. Teachers fell over each other trying to get rid of competition and dull down criticism, ushering in what George Carlin, the well-known but now dead sarcastic comedian, sardonically referred to as “Timmy, you’re the last winner” syndrome.
By the early 2000s, play schools had their little ones singing the “I am special’ song. Here are the lyrics: “I am special. I am special. If you look, you will see. Someone very special, Someone very special. Because it’s me. Because it’s me. You can find an example of the song on YouTube, where they’re still actively promoting this idea.
So what’s wrong with telling kids that they’re special? Isn’t self-esteem vital to how kids see themselves and how they interact positively with the world? Well, thinking of yourself as an inherently decent person, balanced with flaws that you have to work on, is, I would say, far healthier. Why? Well, because I would argue that teaching your child that they are particularly special actually creates far more issues than it solves, and I believe it is this idea that is now directly behind the need to make trauma central to our identity.
Think of it this way: when self-esteem hove into view and made its way into schools and into the parenting consensus, we suddenly had a generation of kids growing up and being told they were very special. As I said, that continues to this day, and the message continues to be just as appealing as it ever was, to the point that far too many parents still consider it essential for the welfare of their children’s mental health. You can read all about self-esteem’s actual evolution and its origins in this fascinating article.
But suffice it to say, the importance of self-esteem is a pillar of today’s parenting styles and attitudes. I was reading the other day about a child’s birthday party where all the kids were playing “pass the parcel.” The mother of the birthday child had decided to have just one present in the centre of the parcel (like I remember) instead of a present inside each layer of the parcel, as is common today. She was prepared for some tears but was surprised at how ridiculously upset the children got when they understood that there was no gift when they removed their layer of paper. The children screamed or cried en masse, apparently, and couldn’t be consoled. Their expectation was that they would each get a present. Think of gift bags at birthday parties and look at them under the same lens, and it’s easy to see that the bags are provided to console children with a present because, for this short moment in time, they are not the special birthday child and thus the focus of attention. Not being special for one afternoon is obviously seen as undue psychological torment.
The cult of victimhood won’t make your kids happy: Teaching children to be entitled doesn’t help them in the long run.
Being told you’re special is synonymous with entitlement. After all, what else would be the reason to be “special?” Being special brings with it the idea that you are better, greater, more highly regarded, or otherwise superior to the ordinary. If you are “special,” then surely you deserve more. More consideration, more attention, more stuff, more…
If you get all that attention and stuff, then all is well, but if you don’t, then retreating into a place of victimhood makes sense. If you can’t get what you want, then it must be someone else who will not give it to you. You deserve it, so the idea of having something withheld from you must have ill intent behind it.
Now, I’m probably going to upset some people when I say this, so I’m going to preface my remarks by saying the following does not, in any way, apply to everyone in a particular generation. When I make comments about millenials or Gen Z, I’m talking in generalizations. The chances are that if you’re still reading this, you are one of the exceptions, because otherwise I think you’d have stopped reading in disgust a long time ago.
So with some exceptions, the “specials” grew up and went out into the world, and they found out quickly that they weren’t special. They found out that the world wasn’t ready to bend over backwards for them. Some adapted, but many balked. So many balked that businesses started to change to accommodate this new, more demanding workforce. En masse, they rejected a lot of workplace norms, and they were determined that the world of work should fit them rather than the other way around. Now, not all millennials have demanded these perks, but a lot have, and though one can argue that in many ways life has become harder economically for the millenials and the generation Z below them, especially in light of the recent shrinking of the economic pie, their attitudes even in the face of that hardship have persisted rather than change.
The cult of victimhood won’t make your kids happy: Kids that are used to being special will look for that in adulthood.
I’m now going to divide our young society into two groups. Both groups have all been told they’re special, but one group actually had everything that went with that classification and the others did not. Let’s see what might have happened.
In the first group, what happens to people who consider themselves special, who have had the lawn of life mowed well in front of them, who turn around and then find out they’re not special? Well, they first try to maintain that privilege. But what happens if a movement or two shows up and tells one group of these people that, as a significant component of society, they are responsible for the oppression of another? They’re not just no longer special; indeed, they’re part of the oppressive classes. They’re part of an oppressive majority that has squashed a minority, and they should feel guilty. They should atone. I’m going to skirt over whether or not that guilt is fair, but what I am going to suggest is that suddenly finding out that you’re an oppressor and not special is a huge psychological shock.
Or alternatively, what happens if a group traditionally left out of feeling special suddenly finds out that they really are special, but so far they have missed out on any of the rewards that such a classification would entail? First, they might ask questions such as, “Why didn’t I get those things?” and they might rightly suggest they have been unfairly discriminated against in the past. They might become activists and demand reparations for their historical or present day hardships. Taken to its logical conclusion, you would not be surprised that this group suddenly felt very entitled and would go out of their way to try and balance the scales from their point of view, whether or not a present-day specialness was practical or actually good for society as a whole or even for them as individuals.
So here we have two opposing groups, each trying to carve out for themselves the specialness they think they deserve, but they’re doing it at a time when economic circumstances are tough on everyone. Inflation is roaring upward. The cost of filling up our gas tank and grocery basket racks up constantly. Faced with the hardships that are routine in today’s stratified society, being treated as special is a tall order.
So what does someone who sees themselves in this way do to deal with such a shock? Well, they try to seek the same thing that they either longed for as children or actually enjoyed as children. They search for a way to feel special, and what better way to do that than to join the ranks of the ‘oppressed,’ the “marginalized,” or ‘the misunderstood?” If you wanted to find a reason for the swelling ranks of those struggling publicly with one issue or another or adopting an identity that wears those struggles, mental or otherwise, on their sleeve, then look no further.
Being special creates entitlement, and entitlement is a state of mind. It is a reflection of how you see your worth, and it’s so much easier to make that victimhood your core and to feed that sense of self through activism about your lot in life than it is to adopt practices and work that challenge it. It’s easier to defend who you are than what you have or have not accomplished.
The cult of victimhood won’t make your kids happy: Say no to telling your kids they’re special and give your kids a happy future.
And with the world turning on the oppressors, life is more difficult. I can see that myself. I write poems—satire really—and I’ve gone to publishers websites that tell me that they are not at this time accepting manuscripts from people like me, providing a long list of minority groups they will accept work from. Now, I’ll let you imagine to what group ‘people like me’ belong, but suffice to say, I am not wanted. To make up for previous oppression, they oppress another group. I’m not here to comment on the rights and wrongs of that, but I do find it interesting that just as society turns on a new set of oppressors, the group of currently oppressed people gets larger and larger. All I can see is that the cult of victimhood has arrived, and you would be doing your kids a huge favour towards the happiness of their future lives if you could stay well away from it.
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Here’s a clip of Annie the Nanny talking about the power of choice on CTV Calgary.