“You Are Not Special” Speech: Rethinking Youth Culture

Is giving every kid a trophy really what’s best for them?

Wellesley High English teacher David McCullough, Jr. made headlines recently with commencement remarks that told graduates, “You are not special.” The point he was making relates to the way youth are, in his words, “pampered, cosseted, doted upon” while growing up.

Youth softball and soccer leagues that don’t even keep the score give trophies to all the kids. Does that make sense? What, exactly, are the trophies for? Showing up? Well, no one takes attendance either. We live in a culture that often is obsessed with telling every kid how great they are regardless of performance for fear of hurting their feelings. But I don’t think that creates self esteem. Doesn’t self esteem comes from resiliency — failing first at things, learning from our failures and finding the resolve to come back and succeed? That is the kind of achievement that builds confidence and fortitude.

Every parent feels their child is special, a gift from God to be cherished. Or at least they should. And each child has a special light within to be celebrated. But that is something different from “pretending” all performances are the same. They are not and that lesson that will be tougher to learn when they are ultimately faced with the “real world.”

There is the other extreme, of course. Overbearing parents demanding their eight-year-old deliver on the ball field. Fun and improvement should be complimentary goals, not opposing ones.

I think the best way to produce excellence is to acknowledge it when it really occurs. The pursuit of excellence is the path to fulfilling our full potential. McCullough was right to ask that our youth resist the “narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction.” Their futures, and ours, may depend on it.

The writer is an adjunct college professor who runs a communications company and has a young daughter active in youth sports.