The Parents We Mean to Be

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Should We Tell Children They're "Special?"

Helping children understand their strengths without breeding arrogance.

In her interesting, thoughtful book, The Self-Esteem Trap, psychologist Polly Eisendrath underlines "the value of being ordinary." She worries that all the overt and subtle ways that modern parents convey to children that they are special make children self-important and arrogant and deprive them of the capacity for healthy connections with others. Author Alissa Quart is similarly concerned: she argues that parents these days are terrified of their children being ordinary.

While I tend to agree with Eisendrath and Quart, this issue is complex. I can't imagine telling my kids they're ordinary, and in certain respects it's important for us as parents to convey to children they're special. We need to know our children and to be able to distill and reflect back to them their particular strengths - whether they are intuitive, feisty, funny, soulful or many other qualities - and we need to guide their day to day choices in ways that reflect this knowledge. One powerful way in which the self develops and defines itself is by being known for its distinct qualities. We also live in a competitive society where success in certain spheres clearly does require being better than others in certain respects.

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But Eisendrath and Quart are right: there are dangers when we spend a lot of time focusing on what distinguishes our kids. Children can come to feel that they're better than others not in particular ways but in a global sense -- that's the essence of arrogance and entitlement. Children can also become brittle -- fearful and highly prone to shame-- when they sense they are not better than others.

The challenge, then, is to help children understand their distinct strengths without breeding arrogance and entitlement. We can meet this challenge, but it means doing a few things that many modern parents rarely do. For one, we should focus not only on our children's strengths but on helping our children to attend to other children's specific strengths. We should also spend time helping our children understand not only how they are different but the many strengths, vulnerabilities and circumstances they have in common with others, including those unlike them in terms of race, class, culture and other characteristics. It is that understanding of sameness that's a key foundation for a sense of common humanity and morality.

Perhaps most important, far too many parents these days measure their success by whether their kids distinguish themselves. Yet we should primarily feel successful as parents not when our kids are different but when our kids do things well that we also want others to do-- when our kids are, for example, caring friends, competent workers, responsible citizens, loving and responsible romantic partners and good parents themselves. These qualities are certainly not ordinary enough in our society, and they are the qualities, after all, that are both at the core of our children's well-being and at the heart of a better and more just world.


Endnotes:

Young-Eisendrath, Polly, The Self-Esteem Trap, Little Brown and Co., N.Y., 2008

Tsing Loh summarizes Quart's views in "The Drama of the Gifted Parent," The Atlantic Monthly, October, 2006. Quart's book is: Quart, Alissa, Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child, Penguin Press, N.Y. 2006.

 

Richard Weissbourd is a child and family psychologist on the faculty of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and School of Education.

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