5 Reasons NOT to Make Your Child Feel *Special*
As loving, compassionate and empathic parents – we want our children to have a strong sense of self-worth. We want to protect their self-concept and we want them to view themselves as not only “good enough” but just plain “good”.
The trouble is that this can sometimes lead us down the “self-esteem” rabbit hole. Long story short, with the best of intentions, we tend to go to great lengths to flood a child with “evidence” and “feedback” to reflect how good they are: Looking for ways to make them feel special, to make them feel talented, gifted.
It comes from the best of places, but often, in our attempts to balance out the judgment and criticisms of the world, we come full circle – judging and praising instead.
Today I’m using the example of telling a child that they’re “special” – but it might take on a different flavor for you. Looking for ways to “bolster” your child’s self-esteem by praising them, by rewarding them, or even by rigging their environments so that they experience themselves as “Winners”.
But the pressure to make our children feel SO special, talented, smart, extraordinary… is actually doing them a disservice.
Wait! I thought children today are suffering from low self-esteem? I thought it’s my job to make my child feel good?
I hear you.
- We WANT to insulate them from the pain of the world.
- We WANT to protect them from bullies and harsh words.
- We WANT to compensate for when they fail. (*gag* that word is hard to say)
- We WANT to bolster their self-esteem.
In a culture that worships the individual above all else, and that is obsessed with self-esteem, it’s no wonder that us parents are trying to make our children feel special. It’s no wonder that we’re trying to build up strong little egos that can face the “harsh world” out there. And it’s no wonder that we’ve received the message that feeling special = good. And better than everyone else = very good. (By the way – what does “special” really mean anyway?)
I want to question these assumptions, based on everything I’ve learned about the failed self-esteem movement. Here are some issues we might check ourselves against. When children grow up being told they’re special, here are some things I’d be concerned about:
- Isolation: When we feel like we are so special, we have alienated ourselves from those around us. Rather than viewing and celebrating the world’s diversity of genius, and the endless expressions of human life – we fixate on our own, superior, qualities. We don’t feel like part of a collective and we don’t recognize our own light in others (Namaste!) – instead, we set ourselves apart and are isolated.
- Fixed Mindset: When we think we are unusually gifted and talented, we may just think we don’t need to strive for out-of-reach goals or to put in the hard work. As Carol Dweck teaches us: with this type of labeling we likely view ourselves (and the world) through a fixed mindset (I was born special and talented and I can’t do anything to change that) rather than a growth mindset (I can put in the effort and improve at anything). In fact, across every single discipline, it appears that consistent deliberate practice (learn more on this from Anders Ericson here) is the main contributor to success – even factoring in any prodigy tendencies (which I question even exist).
- Entitlement: Growing up feeling special may lead us to imagine we deserve to get the job, the raise, the girl or get a break… just because of who we are. We’re special, right?
- Fragility:…and what happens when we don’t special? What if we fail in our areas of supposed “talent”? When so much is at steak – losing our “specialness” label – we may crumble under the inevitable reality of setbacks, challenges, competition or mistakes. Does this mean we subtract from our self-worth because if we haven’t met our “specialness” quota we are no longer worthy? Does it mean we quit, rather than face the risk of failure?
- Conditionality: Of all the risks of artificially bolstering up a child’s self-esteem with continuous labels like “special” or “talented” – this one perturbs me the most. I fear when we put our kids up on a pedestal – it’s natural for them to believe that they need to be extraordinary to earn love and praise. That our admiration and adoration for them is because of this “specialness”. That we love them for it.
I want my children to know that I love them unconditionally – and no, they don’t need to be any more special than anyone else. Perhaps the opposite of unfair criticism isn't unmitigated praise, but rather it's unconditional acceptance.via @ParentingJunkieTweet This
I want them to know that they don’t need to earn my love with their performance, talents or gifts – that they are enough as they are.
I want them to know that their successes and failures are theirs and not mine. I’m merely here, a lucky witness and hopefully a supportive guide, to walk their childhoods alongside them.
I want them to know that most of us are average in most ways – and that’s OK. In fact, it’s great.
I want them to know that everyone is special, which means no one is special. Which is a beautiful thing.
And I want them to know that whilst they may not be special to the world, they’re certainly special to me.
Childhood is the perfect time to simply be.
- NOW is the time for them to get frustrated.
- NOW is the time to learn to follow instructions, collaborate and be a part of a group.
- NOW is the time learn not to draw all the attention to yourselves and look to help others.
- NOW is the time to focus on what you can give, not what you can take.
- NOW is the time to learn you are just another human being on this planet.
- NOW is the time to learn that you’ll win some, and lose some, and that’s OK.
- NOW is the time to learn that you need to answer to your conscious and not to others ideas.
- NOW is the time to “fail”, fall and make plenty of mistakes.
- NOW is the time to simply be, without being evaluated, measured and compared.
- NOW is the time for non-transactional love to flow between us.
What to Say Instead
So how do we make a child feel that they’re special to us, but not that they’re special? Some ideas… you could say:
Say, I love you.
Promote unconditional love that isn’t based on performance.
Say, I see you.
Be a witness, who’s interested, curious and adoring.
Say, You’re special to ME.
Point out ways that you’re connection is special, rather than their performance is special.
Say, You’re really working hard… You’re figuring this out.
Give props to effort and risk taking, rather than to innate talent (see more – goodbye good job)
Say, I really appreciate your help!
Acknowledge when your child is being kind, curious, dedicated… appreciate their contributions and express gratitude.
Say, I’m impressed by your big questions!
Encourage their curiosity and their learning.
Say, I’m so interested in the things you do.
Show that their work, their play, and their ideas are of value to you.
Say, You’re a thoughtful person!
If you must label, point out the elements in your child that are rooted in kindness and giving.
Say, You inspire me.
Doesn’t this sound like a much better way to build our children up in a way that proves our unconditional love?
What is your favorite of these alternative phrases? I’d love to hear in the comments below.