Recently, on NPR, a commercial aired for a private, Christian school in Nashville whose primary pledge is to help discover and celebrate what makes each of its students unique. On the face of it, this is a fabulous thing. We all want to be special. If you scratch a bit below the surface though, this message becomes absurd. This school is promising to identify, distinguish, evoke and celebrate the absolute uniqueness of all 600 of its students. How is this even possible, I ask?!
Nevertheless, this ridiculous message resonates deeply with parents all over Nashville. Not only do most of us want to be special, we also insist our kids are special. We cater to them in sports, music, school choice, bedroom color, learning style and life trajectory in the hunt for, and then announcement of, their discovered uniqueness. Parents move heaven and earth to get each child into the perfect school. Not college; elementary school. Moreover, we often treat participation in sports as all-important, as if each child’s primary identity will be shaped by the narrative of this miniature athletic “career.” Perspective is lost, even though most of these “careers” phase out not after 5 seasons in the pros, but before 8th grade. The obsessions with sports—the pressure, time and money—are easy to mock, but they are merely a symptom. The problem I want to elucidate and explore runs much deeper, and dictates many of the expectations we place upon our children.
The import of this kind of thinking and parenting is that every child is exceptional, and their worth is only found in regularly manifesting their exceptionality. This is dangerous for several reasons, a few of which I will address here. First, this assertion of exceptionality implicitly and explicitly applies overwhelming pressure on many kids. There is a frantic look in their eyes, for they know they wear the mantle of “Exceptional.” If a child is as exceptional as they’ve been told they are, it only follows that they MUST make the honor roll, or start on the soccer team, or be an outstanding leader, or be an artistic savant, or get into the school that is designed to perfectly draw out their unique awesomeness. Are we kidding? We have all seen the numbers of rising anxiety in elementary school aged children, not to mention the angst and increasing trends of self-harm in high school students. Instead of reminding them that their exceptionality must be demonstrated with concrete evidence for which they are responsible and by which they will be measured, what if we instead used every opportunity to show them the nature of our love for them? What if, instead of demanding a demonstration (for this is what we communicate when we involve them in so many activities), we demonstrated to them that our love and support of them exists outside of their effort or ability to prove themselves worthy? What if our love for them reflected God’s first—unearned—love for them?
Second, telling kids they are exceptional encourages self-absorbed living. If kids are exceptional, then they must reach their full potential at all costs! Of course the whole family should suffer to make sure each child is driven to and from the school designed perfectly for them, the year round sport at which only they can excel, or the choir in which only they best sing. They are exceptional! Entitlement is the natural side effect of raising a child to think she is exceptional. We cannot reasonably expect our kids not to be self-absorbed when our every move is geared toward proving how exceptional they are to the world. If, however, we instead help them understand how their gifts, talent, genius and interests are part of a communal whole, they might catch a vision for collaborating with others to ensure the flourishing of the community, instead of only accomplishing their own goals.
Third, this emphasis on being exceptional reduces their ability to be compassionate and empathetic. They are not like other kids; they are exceptional. One of the central problems of the exceptional paradigm is that it destroys community. One’s value is only found in the context of being other than, or more accurately, better than. When this is the framework, empathy and compassion cannot exist. At worst, we are raising our kids to fight for their primacy at all costs; at best we are teaching our kids to offer condescending pity to their non-exceptional peers. Imagine how the fabric of our society could be strengthened if we actively parented in a way that celebrated points of connection in the midst of diversity, rather than diminishing any contribution that comes from another. Compassion and empathy are skills needed in order to engage those with different perspectives; indeed, these are the seeds of leadership, not evidence of weakness.
My wonderful parents were masters of raising exceptional children. They just couldn't help themselves; they thought the four of us hung the moon! We were told, with no hesitation, that we were simply more gifted than others, and our childhoods were magical. Our assumed exceptionality was hidden under the guise of humility and “to whom much is given much is expected;” nevertheless, the message stuck. Indeed, the motto of our elite school was Principes non homine: Leaders, not men. This community was so committed to the exceptionality of each child that these messages were thought necessary to help a child reach her potential, not ideas that might create little arrogant, self absorbed monsters. My parents mitigated all the praising of us by leading remarkably service- and other-oriented lives. They raised us to know we were God’s greatest gift to earth AND to be adults who consistently notice and advocate for others. Importantly, they continue to model deep humility in the way they encourage us to raise their grandkids with a different emphasis. I am grateful for my remarkable childhood even as I also see the danger in raising my kids to think they’re exceptional. Do we really lose anything if our starting point becomes, “You are delightful, and I can’t wait to see where you decide to put your energy to make life better and more meaningful for yourself and others”? If we want to expand our us, we must interrogate the impact of the messages we send our kids...on themselves and their communities. Consider the disservice we offer our kids when we tell them, in words or with our actions, that they are exceptional.