Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Kid, you are not special

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
June 12, 2012 -- Updated 1520 GMT (2320 HKT)
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
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT