David McCullough Jr. says your kids are not special

In the nicest way possible, author and viral Internet sensation David McCullough Jr. said he doesn’t think your children are quite as special as you do. But, the way he sees it, that’s not such a bad thing.

On Tuesday, May 13, Mr. McCullough appeared at the Wilton Library to discuss his recent book, You Are Not Special, a follow-up to a high school commencement speech that made the English teacher an overnight YouTube and Facebook star.

His overarching message on Tuesday was a simple one, that children of the millennial generation are treated more as guided financial investments than people growing and coming into their own. That fact, he says, will eventually bring forth a generation of students ill-prepared to deal with an ever-changing world.

“Kids are no longer afforded the opportunity to scratch their head and kick a can down the road and think,” he said at the beginning of his presentation. “They are charged — all of the time — with achievement, they’re charged with accomplishment. They’re given all kind of responsibilities and they start to think of situations merely as opportunities to shine. They do what they do with the thought of impressing, rather than learning, or growing. They think their job is to look good, to create an impressive résumé for the purpose of getting into college.”

What happens, he asks, when a child is faced with a challenge that cannot be solved by following directions and receiving a grade?

Much of this problem is a response to the helicopter parent culture that is widespread in privileged areas, Mr. McCullough said.

“The fear for the parent is that ‘if I do remove myself from the equation, he’s going to screw up, or he’s going to miss his shot,” he said.

This has created a class of students more interested in the end goal — a good grade — than the learning process required to get there.

Success “is not about the grade,” he said, “it’s about everything that comes before the grade.”

In recent years as a parent and a high school teacher, Mr. McCullough said he’s seen a tendency of parents of privileged children more intent on “creating a beautifully packaged product” of their child than allowing them to grow and adapt as human beings.

Citing an experience with his own daughter, the author said in today’s highly competitive youth athletics programs, to be an athlete is to get “sucked into over-the-top sports clubs.” His daughter, now a college athlete, pursued soccer with reckless abandon as a child.

Though he supported her desire to play sports, he said he also worried “what experiences were denied to her because she was out on the soccer field all of the time.”

Mr. McCullough also spoke about a self-obsessed phenomenon he has seen in many young people.

“They way they are being raised, to them self-absorption feels like being responsible; [they’re saying] ‘I’m supposed to be an achiever here, leave me alone, I’ve got to be by myself.’”

The rise of the Internet-connected cellphone, he said, has not helped children’s understanding of achievement.

“They have instantaneous access to information about anything, anywhere. They’re saying, ‘why am I going to fill my head with stuff I can find with two clicks?’ They can’t spell, and they can’t get themselves from A to B. They’re not worried about that stuff anymore, and what they are worried about is nit-wittery, to be honest. But tell them to achieve, and they’re off like cocker spaniels. They’ll bring it back to you and say ‘where is my kibble?’”

To read more about Mr. McCullough’s book, visit amazon.com.