So you’re probably wondering why, on earth, I would say telling kids they’re special is one of the worst parenting mistakes. You love your kids, right? And you want to boost their confidence. Perhaps you think that by telling your kids they’re special, it will really help them feel good about themselves. And so it will, but like everything in life, there is a fine balance to keep. Your child needs to know that you support them, that you love them no matter what, and that you are ready to give them the help they need to get back up when they fall. However, there is a big difference between your support in helping them feel confident in tackling new challenges and trying to protect them by giving them an inflated view of themselves. Your kids should be special to you, but what I want to focus on today is the pitfalls of telling children they’re special in a larger context.
Perhaps parents tell kids that they’re special in a more broad sense, so they’ll go into the world feeling so good about themselves and so aware of their uniqueness in the universe that they’ll have the equivalent of an inner teflon suit, a protective layer that will prevent all the soul-crushing negativity out there in the world from even touching them.
Teachers and caregivers are all in on the act too. They consider it the best way to boost a child’s self-esteem so they can go out into the world and conquer it, full of self-confidence, never once looking back. It’s a master plan, but like most master plans, when you start looking at it, it turns out, in the words of my favourite British comedian (Rowan Atkinson), to be “total and utter bollocks.” In a minute, we’ll have a look at all the ways it’s utter bollocks and discuss them, but first a little history. I wrote this in another article called “The Cult of Victimhood Will Not Make Your Kids Happy,” and in it I quote this small bit of historical context.
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.
Ok, so you know the historical context, so let’s talk about why telling kids they’re special is one of the worst parenting mistakes. As a parent, you love your child, and of course, you want them to be happy. Now, I presume you mean you want your child to be happy no matter what life brings them, whether they have lots of material success or they don’t. Of course, you’d love them to have some material success too (who wouldn’t?), but you’d probably want them to be happy regardless of their circumstances. The trouble is that inner happiness comes from being grateful for what you already have, and lofty expectations created by a child’s specialness can actively stop them from appreciating what they already have. Happiness is an inside thing. It’s why Buddhist monks can be happy with literally the shirt on their back or, in their case, a robe.
Teaching kids they are special essentially tells them that their specialness somehow puts them above others. Of course they’re special to you as their parent; I’m happy with that, as long as all siblings are equally special, but when it comes to the larger context, specialness implies that they are somehow better or have been placed ‘over’ their peers. And when you imply to someone, anyone, that they are somehow deserving of more in life, you’re going to get a problem. Why? Because they internalize that specialness and then they expect more and quite often, when they don’t get the specialness they think they deserve, their expectations are dashed. Dashed expectations lead directly to unhappiness.
Let’s look at that for a moment. If you constantly don’t feel like you’re getting what you’ve been told you should expect, eventually you get angry. You get resentful. You ask yourself, Why, if you’re so special, shouldn’t you be getting whatever it is you think you deserve? You think all the way around the subject, but at the end, you’re left with the fact that somebody or something is denying your specialness. Whatever it is that is preventing good things from coming your way must be done on purpose because you are the centre of the universe. We have another word for that, and it’s called ‘narcissism’, and here you can read about a study on the effects of specialness that confirms exactly what I’m talking about.
Why telling kids they’re special is one of the worst parenting mistakes: It fills them with false confidence.
Those of you who keep tabs on my articles know that I like the subject of how to make kids resilient for a future that I think all of us know in our gut is going to get harder. That means that relying on your kids specialness to make it through the coming century, let alone thrive, is like trying to power a spaceship with positive vibes—uplifting but unlikely to defy the laws of physics.
So, why is that? Well, it’s all about those expectations again, not just the material ones. Parents who create narcissistic kids with all that specialness are making it harder for them to do well in the future. They overestimate their child’s capabilities in order to boost their good feelings, and that overestimation unfortunately leads kids to think they are doing and handling things much better than they are, which means it’s a bit like you’re helping them to steer the titanic right at the iceberg rather than suggesting they might want to rethink their course and avoid it. Here’s another scientific-based article from a researcher at the University of Amsterdam that backs up this hypothesis and explains exactly how this phenomenon occurs.
Why telling kids they’re special is one of the worst parenting mistakes: It teaches them that they can’t succeed without constant reinforcement.
If, as a child, you’ve always been told how special and amazing you are, I’m sure you can figure out that it would feel extremely weird if people stopped telling you that. It might be all well and good to receive all that validation when you’re growing up, but when you finally enter the big, wide world, I’ve no doubt you’ve noticed, but people don’t generally go around telling you you’re brilliant. Well, some do, and it’s actually an increasing phenomenon in the arts to tell people who suck at something that they’re fabulous, but generally speaking, at least in the work world, that’s not what you usually get. More likely, you get a nasty dose of reality, and you could find it very difficult to perform in the workplace unless someone is constantly showering you with praise and confetti.
Why telling kids they’re special is one of the worst parenting mistakes: It makes them scared to explore or to fail.
If you are truly and naturally wonderful at something and acknowledged as having special capabilities that put you above other people, then it follows that you want to stick with the tried and true, the thing that gains you all the attention and reinforces just how amazing you are. Perhaps your child is a really good piano player for their age and has some true talent. Acknowledging and encouraging that talent is different from making it central to the child’s core of how they see themselves. I’m sure we all know one or two people who are like that and have internalized the idea that what they can do is who they are. It’s often people who have slaved over a particular profession and then find upon retirement that they have no idea of who they really are without their work.
If a parent makes that talent central to the child’s specialness, goes on about it to friends, and piles on pressure to be the best, it makes it very difficult for the child to explore other areas of their life where they might not be so gifted. It makes them afraid to step beyond the cage their parents have created for them. A talent will blossom if a child does it voluntarily. The inner will and drive have to be there. If we stick with the idea of a child skilled in music, we could then see how a parent might press their child to practice over and over again, but at the end of their nagging wakes up to find their child is simply accomplished technically but continues to lack something they can’t put their finger on. True talent and/or art come from the soul and will eventually be expressed with or without a parent’s permission or cheerleading. Keep all avenues open until they choose their own.
Even having skills in one particular area does not mean you have natural skills in other areas. Being a child is all about exploring your boundaries and finding out what you can do and what you can’t. You also can’t win at something if you don’t try, but to try, you must risk failing. So, the trouble with telling kids they’re special is simply that if they’re special, it implies that they have skills beyond the ordinary, and they understandably don’t want to look stupid or risk falling from their perch to check anything else out. For these children, to risk failure is to risk too much. By making them aware of their specialness, they won’t want to risk a long fall into failure, and that’s a shame because it limits life’s experiences and keeps them predictable.
You see, failure is a wonderful part of learning, and it’s a powerful teaching tool that is severely underutilized by many parents. It’s actually much more important than success. My mom used to mutter the lyrics of a long-forgotten song that said, “If at first you don’t succeed, then try, try, and try again.” And if their happiness is your goal, then you might like that the brain’s endorphins are super stoked when they actually need to work at something that doesn’t come easily. The reward of something hard being finally accomplished feels amazing, and your child will absolutely love it.
So by telling your child they’re special, you colour the lens through which they see themselves. It makes it harder for them to face life’s ups and downs, not easier. Giving them an empowering view of themselves may seem like a gift, but it actually does the opposite and creates a mismatch between what they see when they look in the mirror and their reality on the ground. Real happiness comes from knowing their true gifts and their true limitations. The latter can always be worked on, and it’s that encouragement to explore and keep trying that is the truest path to a happy life.
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Here’s Annie the Nanny on CTV Calgary talking about how to ground your own personal hovering helicopter.