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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.

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"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.

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

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