David McCullough Jr. Claims Everyone is Special, by Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD

When David McCullough Jr. delivered the commencement address at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts in 2012, it turned out to be more special than anticipated. Why?

Because McCullough was gutsy enough to speak words rarely heard by teenagers. “You are not special,” he said. “You are not exceptional.”

As he went on to fully describe how graduates had been pampered and fawned over by adults, he spoke a great truth: “If everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.”

A teacher of 26 years, David McCullough Jr. put in words what many educators and psychologists have been preaching for years, that education should be about learning, not about gaining material advantage. Without using the term social justice, he talked to graduates about the responsibilities of privilege, inviting them to experience the selflessness and joy that comes with the “recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.”

McCullough’s speech is a joy to read. And it has received unprecedented interest by parents, teachers, and the media. Why? Beyond the fact that his message was cleverly delivered, I believe he speaks for many teachers and parents today who watch helplessly at the sidelines while education is reformed and the principles of learning and character development are all but ignored.

Many of McCullough’s ideas are not only keenly felt by many, but are also supported by the research in child and adolescent development. Here are six lessons his speech reinforced and why you should teach them to your kids.

Six Lessons from David McCullough Jr.’s Speech

1. Everyone is Special

When we teach kids that everyone is special, we teach respect and kindness. When we constantly remind them that they are the best and brightest, they learn to look at others from their special pedestals.

2. Learning is a Journey

When we teach kids the value of learning over grades and trophies, we nurture independence and lifelong self-reliance. When we pressure them to get the best grades in the class, they falsely learn that success is linked to external rewards.

3. Affluence is a Privilege

When we teach kids that everyone has the same needs but not the same opportunities, we teach compassion. When we buy them success through affluence, we teach them to feel entitled.

4. Good Character Generates Happiness

When we teach kids character strengths like honesty, courage, and fairness, we give them the tools to live a life of happiness and well-being. When we break the rules to their advantage, we teach them they can do the same.

5. Inner Purpose Drives Goal Accomplishment

When we teach kids that life purpose comes from overcoming tough challenges and learning from mistakes, we give them initiative to engage with meaningful goals. When we assure them that inspiration will find them someday, it usually doesn’t.

6. “We” – Not “Me” Focus Brings Satisfaction

When we teach kids that doing for others brings life satisfaction, we teach them to be good citizens, friends, and neighbors. When we lead them to believe they are the center of the universe, they begin to think they are.

I encourage you to watch David McCullough Jr’s full speech below, currently viewed by almost 2 million people! It is full of humor and wonderful food for thought. It may even make you ponder the question, “Am I raising a ‘pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped’ child?” If so, it’s never too late to change your parenting style!

One of my favorite quotes from David McCullough Jr.’s address: “Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

Do you agree or disagree with his thinking?

Published: June 12, 2012

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