What to Say Instead of “You’re Special”

It starts when they are in utero. Johnny gave me crazy heartburn. This one, it’s the unholy swelling. When they are born, it’s comparing birth stories, birth weight, hair color and how much of it. From there, it pretty much goes on forever, from who started walking when (as if, in healthy children, this indicated anything important), to colleges and career path (same deal). And on and on.

A lot of this is natural; after all, comparison is often how we make sense of the world. A thing is itself because it’s not another thing.

And drawing similarities, particularly within a family, is a way of acknowledging and celebrating kinship. You have a love for chess, just like your uncle. When we make connections between children, and especially between generations, we reinforce ties; we find joy in the threads that weave our families together.

It’s a necessary part of friendship, too. When parents commiserate, we love to share “You too?” stories. Your kid wakes you up by telling you she’s pooped? Mine too! Especially when child rearing can be so isolating, these commonalities give us hope that we are not alone.

But it’s usually not the similarities that get us in trouble. It’s the differences. And when we try to mentally order our children through comparison, those differences can become markers of identity.

And especially in adult children, these markers can be very, very hard to shake.

It often looks something like this. Sonny’s the jerk. Connie’s the nice one. Michael’s the successful one. And Fredo… well, Fredo is the one who’s going to need everybody’s help. (Poor Fredo.) Or, the pervasive: Dick is the smart one, and Jane? Jane works very hard. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one.) We attach labels to our children, implicitly or explicitly, and whether or not they are even accurate, children live into those labels.

Anybody out there still living out their childhood label?

It starts with the little things, doesn’t it? Take this common example. Say we catch a child doing something great – “Wow, you read that word! Good reading!” Can we just affirm it, and leave it at that? No need for Great Aunt Salma to say, “You know, your father couldn’t read till he was 8” or for Parent B to chime in, apropos nothing: “Kayden can only read long A sounds.” I’m sorry, when did the conversation become about someone’s dad or about Kayden or Summer or third cousin Zeke? It wasn’t, but now it is. Now it’s not about the Good Thing That Happened, now it’s about who’s ahead of whom, and that’s a line of thinking that’s not good for anybody. (And side note: if we’re legitimately worried about our kid’s development, let’s get the data from a doctor, not someone’s Facebook video of their kid writing the alphabet at 18 months.)

The comparison trap affects us all, and if we are not careful, we can suck our kids into our own insecurities. It’s everywhere, it’s subtle, and it’s so, so dangerous.

CS Lewis has this great quote about the danger of comparison. He connects it with the heart issue of pride:

“Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next [person]… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.”

When we create a pattern out of comparative comments, harmless as they may seem at first, we are slowly setting our kids up for that same pattern of comparing themselves to others. At its worst, we risk teaching children that their worth depends on being better than the next guy – a.k.a, pride. Not pride as in, “I’m proud of myself,” but pride as in feeling Better Than. A better word for it is probably hubris. And on the other side of hubris is despair for not measuring up. Let’s not let our kids grow up to be those adults who feed off of comparison and competition. Let’s give them a security that extends beyond their standing out from their peers.

And let’s keep cheering on our kids for a job well done, for working hard, playing fair, being kind. We can celebrate what is unique about each kid, and yes, we can even tell them they are special. But let’s be mindful about what that means; maybe specialness is not relative. Maybe specialness is really about being special to Someone. Maybe what we mean when we say special is something akin to how Peter’s lovey blanket, Wawa, is special. It’s not special because it is so inherently, outrageously unique — in fact, there are thousands of others on Amazon just like it — but because it’s his. It has his scent on it, his slobber, the chewmarks from his five teeth. He took Wawa and made it his own. Maybe the word in English for it isn’t so much special as it is precious.

How would it change things if instead of telling kids they were special, we said instead, “You are precious to me”?

So, most important of all, let’s keep telling our kids that they’re loved. Not for anything they have done, or even any amazing way they are, but because they are ours. After all, that’s the way God loves us.




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