Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Kid, you are not special

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
updated 11:20 AM EDT, Tue June 12, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson found teacher's "You Are Not Special" speech to grads uplifting
  • Granderson: Parents do their kids a disservice by sugarcoating their shortcomings
  • He says if kids don't know how to deal with failure, they will not grow and mature
  • Granderson: Best way to raise a winner is to expose your kid to how things really are

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and is a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- When my son was in middle school, I remember attending one of his school band concerts that wasn't very good.

In fact, it sucked.

At times, it sounded as if half the band was playing one song and the other half was playing something totally different. And because I don't want my son to grow up to be a loser, I told him straight out what I thought.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

"How was it?" he asked.

Navy SEAL delivers commencement speech
Best advice for 2012 grads is ...
Perry on tough love for students
Steve Jobs in 2005: No one wants to die

"It was pretty bad," I said.

"I know, right?" my son agreed, smiling. "We're not good at all."

And then we both laughed until we had tears in our eyes.

I don't claim to know everything about parenting, but I do know parents do their children a disservice by constantly sugarcoating their shortcomings to protect their feelings. I can't think of a more surefire way to raise a loser than not allowing a child to learn what it really takes to be a winner.

Not that everything in life is a competition. But if children can't handle competition when it's necessary, or take some criticism, or never strive to be better because their parents inadvertently programmed them to believe they are already the best even when they're not, then they are in for some serious shocks and bumps down the road.

That's the part of the discussion that's missing from all the chatter about David McCullough Jr.'s controversial "You Are Not Special" commencement speech. He didn't call the Wellesley High School Class of 2012 a bunch of lowlifes who won't amount to anything. Rather, he was adjusting their lenses so that they could see the world they were about to enter more clearly.

"Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools," McCullough said. "That's 37,000 valedictorians... 37,000 class presidents... 92,000 harmonizing altos... 340,000 swaggering jocks ... 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you're leaving it. So think about this: Even if you're one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you."

One man's "ouch" is another man's "right on brother," and you can count me among the latter.

My son is special ... to me.

He is special to his mother, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends.

But he is not special to everyone, and he is not great at everything. None of us are.

If the students at Wellesley didn't know this before their last moments of high school, I am glad McCullough was there to help them out before life taught them that lesson in less forgiving ways.

Some folks have faulted McCullough, an English teacher at Wellesley, for his tough words. Sure, the job of high school teachers is not to tear down students' self-esteem. But it's certainly not to inflate students' sense of self-worth with a bunch of unearned compliments and half-truths.

There is a middle ground where "how things are" and "how things can be" meets. It is at this middle point where growth happens. But if parents, teachers and the other adults in a child's life never acknowledge "how things are" -- no matter how good the intention may be -- then they are denying that child an opportunity to mature, to develop a strong sense of self-confidence that can only be earned by recognizing shortcomings and dealing with disappointments and failures.

"And I hope you caught me when I said 'one of the best,' " McCullough said. "I said 'one of the best' so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You're it or you're not."

Which is why McCullough also talked about the importance of pursuing passions for the sake of passions, rather than seeking accolades or striking off items from an arbitrary checklist. Accolades and lists may tell us about accomplishments, but life is meant to be experienced, not just accomplished. It's like the difference between reading books for the sake of reading and reading books just to get a good grade. Tell me, once you're done with school, are you then supposed to be done with reading books? I sure hope not.

McCullough's point was that students should focus less on being seen as special and instead understand that living life is special in and of itself. As Rudyard Kipling so eloquently stated in his poem "If":

If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master;
If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;

The synopsis of "You Are Not Special" may seem scathing, but I found the speech to be quite uplifting, and I shared it with my son. He has another three years to go before graduating from high school, but I always like to remind him that his family and friends think the world of him -- and for the most part, just about everyone else on this planet doesn't give a damn about him. That's not mean or cruel, good or bad, that's just the reality of life. And that's OK -- everyone is special to someone, but no one is special to all.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT