New York Magazine recently had a story asking “Is Ethical Parenting Possible?” Their answer, in short: No. Well, not if you ever want your kid to be somebody, and everyone wants their kids to be somebody, so, well, no.
A few bon mots from the story’s author, Lisa Miller:
“Parenthood, like war, is a state in which it’s impossible to be moral.”
“Every hour, it seems, a parent is given the opportunity to choose between her child and a greater good, and in those moments the primal parental impulse can be overpowering.”
And my favorite, an egregiously revisionist reading of the bible: “Ever since Noah installed his own three sons upon the ark and left the rest of the world to drown, protecting and privileging one’s own kids at the expense of other people has been the name of the game.”
Reading New York Magazine tends to make me want to scream out of my Brooklyn window: “What the hell is wrong with you people?” If you feel the same way, I suggest you read Marjorie Ingall’s takedown of this story on Tablet, in which she nimbly deconstructs the petty vanities and ambitions of New York parents.
What I want to talk about is the creeping, contagious force behind these petty vanities, and that is specialness.
Now it has long been the case that parents find their children the most special people in the world in their eyes. That’s normal. And lovely. But in the recent decades more and more parents have started to believe that their children are the most special people in the world in the world’s eyes. It is precisely this thinking that makes the upper-middle class parents in Miller’s article think they should cut corners and cheat the system if it helps their special child.
Take the parents that do whatever it takes–cheating, bribing, dropping serious dough, whatever–to get their kids in the right school. They are willing to do this not only because they want the best for their kids but also because they think their kids deserve the best.
Miller talks about the anxiety parents feel about the economic challenges their kids may face, and justifies the cheating and lying with that fear. “The accoutrements of middle-class stability and comfort feel like they’re slipping away, even to those of us living smack in the middle of them,” she writes.
Sure, an uncertain economic future is a little unnerving. But what is more unnerving is teaching kids that by manipulating the system you can maintain your spot on the top. If stuff really does fall apart, wouldn’t the children that understand that they are not that special and are subject to a huge force like the global economy be better off than the children who were raised to understand that what applies to everyone else shouldn’t apply to them? And, should things really fall apart, wouldn’t a strong society built on ethics and compassion benefit us more than one that believes an Ivy degree is the be all and end all to success?
The thing is, nobody really wins when we project a universal specialness on our kids. Not us, because we end up doing bad things, and not our kids, who are inevitably constrained by our vision of special.
A recent extremely popular piece on the Huffington Post looked at the fallout from being raised to think you are special. It takes us through the life of a stick-figure named Lucy, whose baby-boomer parents’ financial success in the 70s and 80s “left them feeling gratified and optimistic.”
“With a smoother, more positive life experience than that of their own parents, Lucy’s parents raised Lucy with a sense of optimism and unbounded possibility. And they weren’t alone. Baby Boomers all around the country and world told their Gen Y kids that they could be whatever they wanted to be, instilling the special protagonist identity deep within their psyches.”
As a result, Lucy doesn’t just want to live the American dream with its pedestrian material success, but her personal dream filled with passion, personal fulfillment, and maybe a little fame. Why? Because Lucy thinks she is special. Of course by definition special means that most people aren’t special, but that doesn’t matter because Lucy is special, you see?
The story goes on to show how thinking themselves as special turns into a hindrance for young ladies like Lucy who fail to understand that success requires blood, sweat, tears, and time and not just being smart and present. And then there is her social media filled with other Lucys trying to showcase their specialness, which only makes Lucy feel jealous and lousy about herself.
Think about how better off Lucy would feel if her parents didn’t bribe a preschool admissions officer or pour thousands of dollars into her SAT score–if they just played it honest and let Lucy be unspecial Lucy, just another girl who learned to value curiosity, kindness, and joy over exceptionality.