We are not unique. We are not special snowflakes. We are merely one of many people who are very similar to each other. This is not to say that everyone is the same. There are types of people, and those types have a high degree of variance. Within those groups, there are people who have unique qualities, but this does not make them unique. If we must observe small and inconsequential details to find uniqueness in a person, then they are not unique. This is in no way a bad thing, but telling children they are completely unique and special, implies that it is a potentially bad thing to be like other people, and that is a bad thing.
Like every other person walking the earth, I fit nicely into categories. I meet people like me all the time. They can easily relate to me because of our shared lack of uniqueness. We usually call these people our friends. It would be unadulterated chaos if each of us actually were completely unique – nobody could really understand, or relate to anyone else. Human socialization and friendship is built upon shared experience and commonality. A six-year-old isn’t exactly equipped with the cognitive fortitude necessary to integrate the conflicting ideas that they are utterly unique while simultaneously being taught that friendship is based on similarity.
Not surprisingly, this concept was popularized by the Self-Esteem Movement in the eighties and nineties. Also not surprisingly, it was a short sighted and terrible idea. Parent and other adults were encouraged to ensure that every child icompletely unique, special, and one of a kind. This is supposed to encourage the child to develop high self-esteem, which is not a bad thing; but the way it encourages high self-esteem is a bad thing.
Despite the fact that it’s just not true, constantly reinforcing the ideas of uniqueness and specialness in the same concept is potentially harmful. A child could easily internalize the idea that they must be different in order to be special. Add into this equation that adults are telling groups of children that they are all special and unique and it’s not hard to see how this could become confusing very quickly. Their self-esteem could be damaged simply because children are capable of recognizing the fact that they are similar to their friends. If they are like their friends, then the assumption is they are not unique, which means they are not special.
If everybody is special then nobody is special.
Fostering the idea of uniqueness and specialness during childhood can (somewhat predictably) invite significant decreases in self-esteem as an adult. Your employer probably doesn’t think you are a unique and inherently special person. Neither does your landlord. Or your mortgage company. Or almost anybody who isn’t your mother, except maybe your grandmother.
The more insidious factor lurking just out of sight is the vagueness and insincerity with which children are told they are special. I am in no way suggesting that we should tell our children they are not special. That would be absurd. What I am suggesting is that we stop telling children they are ambiguously special. Everyone is special in some way, but no one is so blindingly special that it permeates every facet of their existence. If our end game as a society is to generate honest, authentic, respectful, and productive people, we should start by being honest, authentic, and respectful in our interactions with children.
Be specific. If a child is special because they have an uncanny ability to learn new languages, then tell them that’s what makes them special. If you are exceptionally good at building or repairing engines, then you are special in that regard. If you draw well, excel at math, tell stories well, are physically attractive, athletic, cook well, play the accordion, write sonnets, compose music – no matter what it is, the things you do objectively better than the general population are what make you special. It takes very little time and energy to identify one of these qualities, yet we continue to travel the low road because expending even the slightest effort is immeasurably more difficult than no effort at all.
I realize that this seems to work against my argument that you, your children, and everyone you know are not special, which is true to some degree. However, the harm is not that we are told we are special; it is how and to what degree we are told we are special. I’m special because I am intelligent and gifted with music. You are special for whatever reason it is that makes you special. Neither of us is special enough to warrant any more or any less and any other person out there. I am assuming you can totally see the difference between these two concepts. If not, then your ability to reason is probably not what makes you special.
Read more of this chapter and a whole lot of other ranting nonsense like this in my book, The Snowflake Effect: How the Self-Esteem Movement Ruined a Generation.